Spoilers are ahead. It isn’t very far into Netflix’s Monster that we hear the titular word. Steve Harmon (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) is a Black 17-year-old living in Harlem, New York. He attends a fancy high school and is an aspiring filmmaker. He’s also on trial for alleged involvement in the murder of a convenience store owner that took place during a robbery. The film is set during Steve’s trial with flashbacks showing his life leading up to his arrest and during the trial, the prosecutor calls him and another man who was involved in the crime “monsters” while giving his opening statement to the jury.
It becomes quickly, heavy-handedly clear that Steve is not a monster. He loves film and photography. He’s a great student. He loves his adorable little brother. He helps his mom with cooking. He’s sweet to his girlfriend. He talks graphic design with his artist father. All of these things build out Steve’s character, which is fine when it comes to making the film’s key point: Black people are often judged by the colour of their skin in the criminal justice system, when each one of them is an individual with a full life, a backstory, and the potential to be innocent.
The problem in Monster is that the other Black characters who are involved in the murder trial are not seen through that lens. As the movie clearly tells us, Steve is a human, not a monster. This is what his lawyer (Jennifer Ehle) says they must prove to the jury and what Steve repeats about himself in voiceover. But, while proving that Steve is human, Monster dehumanizes other Black characters, accidentally perpetuating a narrative that there are “good” Black people and “bad” ones.
Steve, as we’ve established, is “good.” He is young and ambitious and comes from a middle class family. On the other hand, we have twenty-something James King (Rakim “A$AP Rocky” Mayers). King is an acquaintance of Steve’s from his neighbourhood. Steve is wary of him at first, because King is intimidating. But, when King turns out to be welcoming towards him, Steve uses him as a muse for his filmmaking. In the scenes that show King and Steve together, King is a whole person: He shares wise words with Steve. He plays basketball. He has friends. He exchanges stories over a game of chess with an old man in the park.
But, this is Steve’s story, and King’s development is soon left by the wayside. We find out that King was one of the robbers of the store along with his cousin Bobo Evans (John David Washington) and that he coerced Steve into telling him whether anyone was in the shop. (The state prosecutor is trying to pin Steve as the lookout.)
At the end of the film, it’s a relief that Steve isn’t convicted and Harrison’s fantastic performance is responsible for that feeling. But, when King is convicted, Monster doesn’t seem to be saying anything about that outcome. Yes, King is involved in the robbery, but should we feel for him, too? Is there a point being made in that he sees Steve as a snitch? Did the jury see King as an anonymous Black “monster” or did they just rightfully figure out that he was involved? King is the character who could easily be used to make a bigger statement about how Black Americans are treated by law enforcement and the justice system, or about how he ended up in the position that led to robbing a store in the first place. Instead, his story just fizzles out. Steve doesn’t even seem conflicted about King’s outcome and he had been forming a relationship with King in which he specifically was learning not to judge a book by its cover. What happened to that lesson?
Then there’s the handling of Bobo and teenage character named Osvaldo Cruz (Jharrel Jerome). We barely see Bobo pre-robbery and he’s presented like a typical bad guy, looking tough and barely speaking a word to Steve when King introduces him. When Bobo pops up at the trial, it’s because he’s on the stand after taking a plea deal due to prior offences. If King is the “bad” person who had some redeeming qualities, Bobo is just plain “bad." In a film with a theme about how everyone has a story, this portrayal is an odd choice.
As for Cruz, he’s a teen from Steve’s neighbourhood who has bullied him. This character is very simple: He’s mean to Steve. He’s in a gang. He’s young and in over his head. All of this seems to equal that we also shouldn’t feel too much sympathy for him, because all of that is reserved for the “good” Steve. Of course, there have to be people who are actually guilty in the case, but the film isn’t clear on what we’re supposed to make of them.
Monster is based on the 1999 young adult novel of the same name by Walter Dean Myers. While this adaptation from writers Radha Blank, Cole Wiley, and Janece Shaffer doesn’t stray too far from the book plot-wise, Myers' work does explore the character of King further. And since King and Steve are on trial at the same time, the book also more heavily features King’s lawyer, Asa Briggs (Dorian Missick) while in the film we barely hear from him. There’s also more exploration into what it means that Steve was somewhat involved in the crime (there’s a little more explicit involvement in the book), his feelings about his own innocence, and why he might have ended up in this situation at all.
To its credit, Monster does highlight the fact that lawyers are there to do their jobs; they have their own biases and wrongful convictions happen disproportionately to Black people. According to a 2017 Michigan State University study, Black prisoners who were convicted of murder are 50 percent more likely to be innocent compared to others who were convicted of murder. Other crimes also see higher rates of wrongful convictions. For instance, innocent Black people are 12 times more likely to be convicted on drug charges than white people.
But, given that we know King actually is guilty, what message are we supposed to receive other than that young Black men from good families get to prove they're innocent while others aren’t? If the point was that someone like Steve gets to walk free while someone like King doesn’t — regardless of their guilt — that’d be one thing, but the film doesn’t go there. Unfortunately, while there was plenty more to explore and a clear path for a more nuanced treatment, Monster undermines its own premise.