“You’re young, you’re black, and you’re on trial. What else do they need to know?”

Those are the discouraging words offered by a public defender to a young black man who has been implicated in a robbery-gone-awry as he faces a jury and criminal justice system he knows is rigged against him.

"Nicely paced and tastefully artistic, Monster is far better than it should have been"

The film is Monster, and though it debuted at Sundance more than three years ago, its relevance and passion for a cause couldn’t be more timely, especially in today’s social climate, as it finally finds its light of day this week on Netflix.

The film follows 17-year-old Steve Harmon (Kelvin Harrison, Jr., The Photograph), a well-liked student attending the prestigious Stuyvesant High School with dreams of becoming a filmmaker. Hailing from an upstanding background with two working parents, played earnestly by Jeffrey Wright and Jennifer Hudson, Steve is within reach of his goal of attending college and becoming a filmmaker. But those dreams are suddenly shattered when he is arrested for his alleged involvement in the murder of a local bodega owner during a botched robbery.

Was Steve involved? We’re really not sure. Turns out it really doesn’t matter as that question is made somewhat irrelevant by screen writers Colen C. Wiley & Janece Shaffer (who work from a YA novel by Dean Myers) and first-time director Anthony Mandler as their story plays out. Somewhere along the way we lose interest in whether or not Steve is guilty or innocent - although the question is ultimately answered, and find ourselves becoming more concerned with the way the court/justice system treats its accused. Cutaway footage from Kurosawa’s Rashomon – while a bit heavy handed – reminds us of the weight of subjective truth and its reliance on personal perspective.Monster

Via a series of flashbacks that follow three different timelines (one involving his current court trial, the second concerning the events that led to his arrest, and the third taking up Steve’s life as son, brother, and aspiring film student), Mandler adds interest to the proceedings and helps disassociate each timeline from the others by differing each with its own stylistic approach. Stark white overhead lights in the courtroom scenes, warm tones and textures at home, and grainy hand-held black and white for his school days footage. Mandler shows great promise here as he works his way up from music videos and documentary shorts to feature films.

Beyond the stylistic approach and storytelling awareness that is far more advanced than a first-time helmer typically shows, Mandler finds his greatest success with stars Harrison, Jr., Jennifer Ehle as Steve’s public defender, Jeffrey Wright and Jennifer Hudson as Steve’s loving father and mother respectively, and A$AP Rocky and John David Washington as the alleged accomplices, all of whom he gets the most out of. Despite the lack of clarity in Steve’s involvement in the crime he is alleged to have committed, we care about the kid. That speaks to not only Mandler’s brilliant handling of the cast, but also to what a great actor Harrison, Jr. is turning out to be – something we got an eye-opening dose of in his role of Fred Hampton in The Trial of the Chicago 7.

Nicely paced and tastefully artistic, Monster is far better than it should have been. With an over-abundance of courtroom dramas and social justice pieces in today’s cinematic landscape, we really didn’t need another. Then again, with a message that continues to be so chronically relevant some three years after its debut, perhaps we did.

Monster is now playing on Netflix.

3/5 stars

Film Details


MPAA Rating: R for language throughout, some violence and bloody images.
98 mins
: Anthony Mandler
Colen C. Wiley, Janece Shaffer
ASAP Rocky, John David Washington, Kelvin Harrison Jr.
: Drama | Crime
No one has any idea who I am.
Memorable Movie Quote: “You’re young, you’re black, and you’re on trial. What else do they need to know?”
Official Site:
Release Date:
May 7, 2021
DVD/Blu-ray Release Date:

Synopsis: A smart, likeable, 17-year-old film student from Harlem sees his world turned upside down when he's charged with a murder. We follow his dramatic journey through a complex legal battle.