The central event of Monsters and Men is clearly based on the 2014 slaying of Eric Garner by NYPD officers on Staten Island, although writer-director Reinaldo Marcus Green has altered both the location and the cause of death. Yet the killing of loose-cigarette peddler Big D (Samel Edwards) takes place literally in the background. This evocative drama is most concerned about the aftermath, viewed from three different angles.
Green is clearly fascinated by vantage points, as he demonstrates with a prologue that introduces an African-American man, Dennis (John David Washington), as a face in his car's rear-view mirror. It's a face whose expression turns from blithe to anxious with the warning bleat of a police cruiser's siren.
Monsters and Men was filmed exquisitely by Pat Scola, who follows the characters through Brooklyn and Manhattan with a handheld camera, conveying intimacy and distance simultaneously. The camerawork captures the feeling of being at home in the crowd, but with the nagging awareness that trouble could lurk around the next corner, and is as likely to come from cops as criminals.
This is not simply the story of a black and Latino community oppressed by white police officers. Dennis, it turns out, is a cop. It's a job he's proud to have, even after Big D's death sparks protests and reprisals. In one of the movie's most emotionally complex scenes, Dennis defends the NYPD from the anger of a friend who's come to his house for dinner.