Monster isn’t exactly a “new” film. In fact, it first premiered at Sundance three years ago and was well-received. It is now finally making its way into our homes as part of Netflix’s ambitious decision to premiere a movie every single week of 2021. Like the book, the film follows 17-year-old Steve Harmon (Kelvin Harrison Jr.). He’s an honor student and promising film student at Stuyvesant Highschool who is loved by his parents –portrayed by Jeffrey Wright and Jennifer Hudson– who guides his life with a firm but caring hand.
Steve’s life gets turned upside down after a chance encounter with a charismatic young neighborhood hustler named William King– brilliantly played by Rakim “A$AP Rocky” Meyers, and his sketchy partner Richard ‘Bobo’ Evans (John David Washington). They use the impressionable team in a local heist that turns deadly. Steve is charged with felony murder and is thrown into the complex and painfully racist legal system that could determine if his once-promising life will be thrown away, putting him in prison for the rest of his young life.
Cassius Life had the opportunity to speak with Kelvin Harrison Jr., Jeffrey Wright, and Jennifer Hudson about their roles in the powerful yet still an unfortunately timely film that arrives as African-Americans are fighting for better treatment from law enforcement across the country and a legal system systematically set up to see us fail.
We opened the interview up (4:06 mark) by asking Harrison Jr. about a time where he was misjudged or mischaracterized and his response of “every day” at the same time laughing in a serious way that didn’t shock us sadly while using his experience while attending private school hammer home that point.
“I think that was the part of the prep for Steve, was just kind of like really addressing all those moments that I kinda ignored,” he begins. “We ignore a lot of things so we can find comfort, so we can keep going, so it doesn’t take us down. I think back to my time when I was in private school when people didn’t see me, and I felt invisible, and I was trying so hard not to internalize other people’s perception of me. Whether it be like, ‘oh, do your parents make enough money for you to go to this school? Are you a good kid?’ I found myself doing the, you know, the smile like I’m safe, no worries, that kind of thing.”
The arrival of Monster to Netflix was met with excitement due to people’s attachment with the novel. Still, many people also felt it’s just another movie that focuses on Black trauma, and a lot of people have grown tired of movies that seem to be taking the film industry by storm.
We asked the actor if he feels that Hollywood is oversaturating the market with these movies. Harrison Jr. explained that the film isn’t a product of “Hollywood,” but rather a small independent film that producers have been trying to get made since 2006. That shines a spotlight on another situation when it comes to films with predominantly Black casts getting greenlit, and the leaps and bounds producers have to go through while at the same time understanding Black people’s fatigue with these kinds of movies.
“I wouldn’t even look at this as a Hollywood movie,” he opens up. “This was a small independent film from two people that been trying to make this movie for years. [Producers] Tonya Lee and Nikki Silver, in 2016 when we shot it, they had already been trying to get the movie made 10 years ago. That’s 2006! The process of getting a movie out is one thing, and we don’t always know what that journey looks like once we see the film come out. But this wasn’t made by like MGM or Warner Bros. not saying their bad companies, they’re amazing studios, but this was like a small independent movie that we wanted to tell because we loved the book and because so many people love Walter Dean Myer’s novel and they grew up with it.”
“I get the fact that it’s a hard thing to continue to see,” he continues. “At the same time, if we have an understanding of it, that’s fantastic, but not everybody does. So it’s nice to have that reminder, and it’s also nice to see a boy just being a boy and how it affects this 17-year-old boy who was pulling pop rocks out of his pocket go through this mass incarceration system when knowing he has no business being there. We don’t allow ourselves to humanize it in that way. Also, these kids reading it don’t get to see the fact they are seen and that they don’t have to feel invisible, and that they should hold to their truth like Nas (executive producer/ Raymond ‘Sunset’ Green) says in that scene “look a man in the eye and stand to your truth” that’s an important message to move forward with. So there are a lot of beautiful things about this movie that are empowering for us and not just sitting on some of the negative feelings around constantly seeing the trauma. I’m with y’all. I’m with everybody with that too. It’s tough, that’s tough, it’s tough on me.”
We also spoke with Jeffrey Wright and Jennifer Hudson, and they spoke on what it’s like being the parents of Black boys and how you can never really be prepared for what life may throw your child’s way despite being as hands-on as possible “every day,” as Wright answered, in their lives.
Photos: DAVID GIESBRECHT / NETFLIX © 2021