Triple Take: Reinaldo Marcus Green's 'Monsters and Men' is a multi-faceted study of a police shooting
When police shoot an unarmed African-American man in Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood, three men of color respond in different ways. In Monsters and Men, director Reinaldo Marcus Green employs a triptych structure to detail the intimate and heart-stopping choices they’re forced to make in private and public spaces. Director Talk recently spoke with Green.
Director Talk: The film has a very unusual triptych structure, where each “panel” depicts a different character. What was your intention?
Reinaldo Marcus Green: At the core of it is perspective. In 2015 I made a short film that basically dealt with Zyrick’s character [the third panel of the triptych in Monsters and Men], an American kid who has to deal with walking home. I thought about what a film would look like if I expanded my short.
I had a very difficult conversation with a cop friend of mine, somebody I grew up with, and out of that conversation was born what you saw in the film. It was interesting to follow different threads that I didn’t get a chance to explore in my short film. But that only gave me two chapters. My friend and I disagreed with each other and left the conversation, and that’s all it was—two sides, one person walking one way and the other person walking the other way. I thought the triptych was a way to break the tie, if you will. It was a way to show a way out of the cycle. Three was a way out. That’s the way I viewed it, and it was the way I started thinking about the dialogue. When the triptych idea came in, I started thinking about my favorite film, Amores Perros, and how I could tell a story in that format, then I married my ideas to subject matter in a way that we hadn’t particularly seen before.
DT: Where does the title come from?
RMG: I had a title before I had the film, before I even wrote the script. Monsters and Men. I was thinking of the duality of the characters, that each one of us has good and bad, each one of us has monsters and men within us; we all have individual choices to either stay quiet or do something. I thought about that, and it was catchy, and there was a double entendre. It had a dual meaning, and it stuck. The title stuck, and I stayed with it.
DT: To what extent do you think art can influence the discussion about race in America?
RMG: The history of art was born out of revolution, out of poverty, out of oppression. That’s where true art is born. That dates back centuries. When it comes to film specifically, we’re always responding to the times. The films we love are relevant, they’re timely. They tap into a zeitgeist, whether it’s a comedy and it’s The Apartment, with Jack Lemmon talking about the Great Depression. We’re always tapping into social construct and current events and how we as the people engage with them. Whether we decide to tell a satire or a comedy or a drama, films are always responding in different ways.
Now more than ever we have opportunity that we didn’t have to tell stories. We have a bigger platform, a bigger voice. Because of the Ava DuVernays, because of the Barry Jenkins, because of the Spike Lees, we have agency in a way we didn’t have before, and it’s wonderful that they’ve created opportunities for younger filmmakers to either follow suit or create their own. Spike Lee has been doing it for over thirty years. He’s been able to take art and cinema and say really bold, bold things, and people are going to pay good money to see it. Think about Do the Right Thing—it stands up today as well as it did when it was first made, if not more.
We’re constantly responding to the times, whether it’s musicians or painters or filmmakers. It’s our responsibility. Again, I don’t think genre matters. It’s really wonderful to see the difference in films, this year alone, that have different tones. Get Out last year. How you talk about race or politics or gender is important for art and artists and cinema to tackle. This is not a new wave, it’s just we have an opportunity and a platform we didn’t have before and we’re able to tell more stories than we ever have before.
DT: A number of your actors are musicians as well as actors. How much improv was there during the shoot?
RMG: We played around with dialogue a fair amount. We allowed the actors to breathe into what they felt was natural. As a writer, I would say there are limitations to what you put on the page. Sometimes the process is informed by location, the environment, the other actors. It can be informed by what they’re wearing, the set design. I tell my actors that if a word doesn’t fit, don’t force it—find the word that fits. It’s all about the meaning of the scene. So long as they get it, if they can put it in their words, it’s always going to be stronger than what I put down on paper.
DT: You’ve said that it’s necessary to listen to the other side. I’m thinking of the scene where Dennis, a black cop, sees two white cops harrassing Zyrick, a black teenager, but doesn’t stop them. Is it necessary to listen to the other side if the other side is wrong?
RMG: Maybe the word necessary is wrong. When we don’t engage the other side, or we don’t acknowledge that it exists, we’re oftentimes blindsided when things happen. If we allow ourselves to listen and engage, we don’t have to agree, but we know that these are real things that are happening around us and we’re not blind to the fact that they’re happening. It’s important to stay engaged around difference of opinion. If you go into a boardroom and there are ten people who look like you and think like you, you’re going to get very similar results. But when you have different genders, different races, different ethnicities, you’re going to get a difference of thought and oftentimes a better product, whether you’re selling Apple or Nike or a movie.
Sometimes it’s better to have more difficult conversations than easy ones. That’s not just my opinion—it’s the way I view the world. I grew up with a father who’s an attorney. No matter how right I felt about something, he would always give me a rebuttal. He would always show me that there are two sides to every argument. That’s the household I grew up in, and a lot of that informs my filmmaking: I may think I’m right, but am I right? And of course in order to prove that I was right, I had to put together an argument. That’s how we had to survive in our household, but oftentimes there was a rich discussion that ensured we would at least be able to navigate knowing that other people thought a certain way, and it was important for us to engage that way. That’s the way I engage the world, and I hope I can share a little bit of that.
DT: Do you think that racial violence in America can be addressed without acknowledging our history of slavery?
RMG: No. I don’t think so. Not in this country, anyway. It’s synonymous with African-American in this country, and you need to acknowledge that there’s a deep-rooted history here. We have to go back to the beginning and before that; we have to go back to before slavery in this country to really acknowledge how deep the scars run. It’s been going on for a very long time. We’re just trying to find new and inventive ways to keep the light burning, if you will, pass the torch, keep the fire burning to ensure that future generations don’t fall victim to violence.
DT: My heart was bursting at the end of the film, and I believe it’s going to move a lot of other people as well. Do you want to continue making films on this subject, the way Ken Loach makes social-justice films, or do you want to be more like John Boorman, making films like Deliverance and Zardoz and Hope and Glory, all so different from each other?
RMG: I have a kids’ animation film in my lights. I want to make Coco, or Lion King. Human stories that have deep cultural resonance any way you slice it. To me it’s not about the genre, it’s about the story, it’s about the humanity.
Because of who I am as an individual, there’s always going to be a social component. I’m half Puerto Rican and half African-American. It’s unique in my storytelling, it’s unique in how I view the world, and that will always be at the core of any story I’m telling, in front of the camera and behind it.
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