Now, I’ll be telling myself: Recognize the company you keep.
Seventeen-year-old honor student, Steve Harmon, understands this kernel of wisdom now. But he didn’t back then.
One day, a detective showed up at Steve’s door and changed his entire life. Without a warrant, Steve was arrested, taken to prison and charged for aiding in the murder of Mr. Nesbitt, a local store owner.
Lawyers and prosecutors believe that Steve’s role was signaling two men named Mr. King and Mr. Bobo Evans, letting them know that it was safe to enter the corner store. But Steve denies all charges. He says that it was all just a coincidence.
Yes, he knows the men involved in the crime. But he was simply stopping to grab a drink on a hot day, happened to look into the sky and shield his eyes with his hand. Not a signal. Just something Steve often did as an aspiring filmmaker; making sense of humanity through aesthetics.
But what actually happened and what a jury believes happened turn out to be two very different things. And while they may look at Steve as a monster, his only goal is to get the jury to see what took place through his own eyes. His life depends on it.
Steve is an incredible young man who loves his father, mother and younger brother. He’s a top student at one of the best schools in the city, he cares about his friends and family, he’s empathetic, and he’s a deep thinker. And credit for Steve’s character definitely goes to his parents, two people who genuinely love their family, and one another, and work hard to teach their children morals and respect. Steve’s parents also challenge him, encourage him to reach for more and tell him often that he is loved.
Steve’s public defender walks him through the entire legal process and encourages him in a difficult moment. She tells Steve that her job is to make him look “human” in the eyes of a jury which already seems to have its mind made up regarding the kind of person they think he is.
Steve’s film teacher, Mr. Sawicki, encourages Steve’s passion for film. He tells Steve and his other students that passion is required in creating art of any form. His teacher also helps him discover that he sees the world and humanity “through aesthetics.” When called as a witness, Mr. Sawicki defends Steve’s character.
We hear hear spiritual phrases such as “In God we trust,” and, “I know God is love.” Steve’s mother apologizes for not taking him to church more when he was a child. She also brings a Bible while visiting him in prison and has him repeat a few verses of Scripture.
Everyone who takes the stand is asked to place their right hand on the Bible and swear to tell the truth, “so help me God.”
Steve kisses a girl named Renee. William King tells Steve that there are prostitutes in his neighborhood, and he goes into some detail about what a prostitute does. Steve is shown shirtless in one scene. A police officer asks someone if he has AIDS.
A teen and an older man rob a corner store. They shoot and kill the owner in the process. The owner is shown, in multiple flashbacks, lying in a pool of his own blood.
A 15-year-old teen tells a prosecutor that to become a part of a gang you have to “cut” someone “where it shows.” Another young man asks Steve if he’s ever “seen a gun a day in his life?” Steve listens to an older man tell him a story of someone who was once shot in the face and killed.
Steve says that it’s common in prison for guards to abuse prisoners and for prisoners to abuse guards. A man in a jail cell screams that he will “pull out the idiot’s throat.”
God’s name is misused a few times and paired with “d–mit.” The f-word is used more than 30 times and the s-word around 20 times. Other profanity includes a plethora of words such as “n-gga,” “p-ssy,” “a—” and “b–ch.” We see a crude hand gesture.
An older man is sent to prison for selling drugs. Teens drink alcohol, as well as smoking cigarettes and marijuana, in a brief scene at a party. A man makes a reference to people who drink and gamble; he also points out a group of men who are withdrawing from abusing drugs.
Steve learns that what people perceive seems to overrule what is factual. Many people assume that Steve is involved in a gang because he’s Black. And even when he tells them he’s not, some people don’t believe him. Steve, and a few other young men on trial, are called “monsters.” Many people, including Steve, lie about their involvement in the crime.
Steve wrestles with anxiety, emotional detachment, depression and outright fear as he’s held in the prison cell where he hears men screaming obscenities and suffering panic attacks. Steve is arrested without a warrant.
A lawyer tries to bribe Steve’s defense attorney, telling her that he matches a description, and that’s all they really need to lock him up.
Do you know why we sometimes get multiple versions of the same story? Because every person has a unique point of view. Everyone sees things differently. And people naturally embrace their unique point of view as the truth.
That’s what Steve Harmon’s film teacher says to him. And that’s what we witness as this difficult story about guilt and innocence, racism and perception unfolds.
Monster, currently being distributed on Netflix, debuted at the Sundance Film Festival in 2018. And it comes from the novel of the same name. This hour and-a-half story is narrated by Steve Harmon. It walks viewers, in a disjointed way, through the entire legal process while giving everyone a glimpse of Steve’s life and character.
I was struck by the beauty of this film; how it appeals to your mind, your heart and your logic. It’s well-crafted with compelling actors and a deeply compelling story that ultimately asks us to make our own decision about Steve’s guilt or innocence based upon the story we’ve seen. This is a gritty story that asks big questions about perception, truth and humanity.
But these positive elements that are sure to evoke plenty of cultural conversation, are also mixed with a heavy amount of profanity, violence and notions about what truth is that not everyone will necessarily agree with.
Kristin Smith joined the Plugged In team in 2017. Formerly a Spanish and English teacher, Kristin loves reading literature and eating authentic Mexican tacos. She and her husband, Eddy, love raising their children Judah and Selah. Kristin also has a deep affection for coffee, music, her dog (Cali) and cat (Aslan).