Netflix's ‘Monster’ Is More Than a Thrilling Crime Drama

The film adaptation of Walter Dean Myers’ “Monster” starring Kelvin Harrison Jr. and A$AP Rocky explores how rare it is for Black boys to be afforded second chances.
Queens, US
A$AP Rocky
Photo via Netflix

You might have heard about Netflix’s new film Monster long before the trailer circulated the internet last month. For one, the movie is based on Walter Dean Myers’ classic young adult novel which made its way onto playgrounds and classrooms alike when it was released in 2001. Or maybe you heard about the film itself, which was shot five years ago, when A$AP Rocky (who plays the street savvy William King) revealed that he broke his nose while filming the robbery scene. After years of trying to find the right distributor, Monster is finally available for streaming, and Myers’ story is as poignant on screen as it is in his novel. Starring Kelvin Harrison Jr., A$AP Rocky, John David Washington, Jharrel Jerome, and Jennifer Hudson, Monster is a harrowing tale of how being cast as a “monster” could ruin a 17-year-old’s life. 


“We need to be careful with how we label people,” Harrison told VICE ahead of the film’s release. “We want to say some people are animals and some people are brutes, but the power of language is so important. The power of language is what got us here. Systems exist and prejudice and racism exists because of how we speak to each other and how we try to identify a whole race of people.” 

The book follows the murder trial for Steve Harmon (played by Harrison), a promising film student who has been accused of serving as a lookout at a robbery gone wrong. To fully process what he’s experiencing, Harmon copes the only way he knows how: by writing his experiences on trial and in prison as a film. Through his script, we learn how he meets King and Richard “Bobo” Evans (Washington) in his Harlem neighborhood and how he remembers the events leading up to the robbery. 

The film deviates quite a bit from the book, but the differences don’t change that Steve’s fate rests in the hands of a judge and jury. The most interesting part about watching Monster, rather than reading it, is to visually see how different Harmon’s life is in comparison to the men he’s on trial with. For a moment, the contrast between the characters feels like a bit of respectability politics. Harmon’s parents own a brownstone and are so involved with his rigid Stuyvesant High School curriculum that they pop quiz him during breakfast. The implication is to wonder how a boy as gifted and privileged as Harmon could get caught up with hustlers as ruthless as King and Bobo. But the opportunities afforded to Harmon, like his upbringing and elite education, did little to shield him from winding up on trial for murder. 


By the end of the film, Monster does what Myers doesn’t: it gives us the play-by-play of what actually happened that day. In a story rooted in public perception, which often says Black boys are guilty before they are innocent, Monster shows that sometimes the act of survival means you’re neither. Ahead of the film’s release, Kelvin Harrison Jr. sat down with VICE to talk about starring in the film adaptation and how Steve isn’t very different from King and Bobo after all. 

Did you read the book as a child? What was your perception of how the book went? 
I read the book right before I did this film. I never really thought about what it looked like to have so much innocence and to be thinking about how people perceive you. It’s so much more than trying to get people to like you—because we all do that—but trying to get people to believe that you’re a human being. It was a powerful read. 

In Monster we see how every character perceives Steve, but we also see how Steve perceives himself. By the end of the film, we realize we have our own perception of him as well. Do you think there’s a difference in how the audience sees him versus how he sees himself? 
We all have our own ideas of self and things we want to become. Things we see from our parents—like how we behave or how we deal with trauma—to the opportunities we have. [In the film] We see the differences between Steve and King, but we also see the differences between King and Bobo, and then the differences between Bobo and Steve. Three different dudes with three different levels of privilege. Because the film is told through Steve’s perspective, you get the closest view to how Steve might perceive himself. 

In the film, all three men are referred to as “monsters.” We see that Steve holds a level of privilege, which might help his case, but realize that if any of those variables are taken away, Steve could easily be Bobo or King. Do you think by the end of the film we realize we’re all “monsters” to someone? 
We need to be careful with how we label people. We want to say some people are animals and some people are brutes, but the power of language is so important. The power of language is what got us here. Systems exist and prejudice and racism exists because of how we speak to each other and how we try to identify a whole race of people. 


That’s the thing about those three boys. None of them are monsters. All of them are victims of circumstance and two of them did the wrong thing. We have to be able to decipher the difference. 

A lot of Steve’s prison scenes center around suicide, which made me think of Kalief Browder who died by suicide after returning home from Rikers Island. How did you prepare to film the scenes in prison? 
A lot of it was talking to men who had gone through that whole process. I met one guy, his name is Jerry, who went to prison when he was 14 and was released when he was 58. It was a lot about being tough, and hearing him talk about what he had to learn to survive. 

People start to lose hope after a certain point. People’s mental health aren’t catered to in prisons. If that starts to happen you start to fall into spaces that you don’t want to be in and ultimately, they start to treat you like animals. You can begin to act like that and you begin to spiral. That’s how you have people who say, How did I do this? I did things in there that I never wanted to do. The good thing about Steve is that he had people like Nas’ character and [Kathy] O’Brien [Harmon’s defense attorney] to talk him through it. He had a little bit of guidance to protect him in those spaces a little bit. 

Kelvin Harrison Jr. as Steve Harmon in 'Monster'

Photo via Netflix

At one point, Steve mentions the concept of “good company.” The film juxtaposes the time he spends with his Stuyvesant friends versus what he’s doing with King, and how that friendship is what lands him on trial for murder. But we also see that he’s very enamored by King. What do you think of their friendship?
It all starts with the dad. The dad is a great father but at the same time, he sees it as, I’ve made a life for myself. We have a nice brownstone. I have a good job and he can go to the nice school. I want him to be on the football team. There are all of these ideas of who Steve is supposed to be and none of them included Steve. He’s protected him from a lot of things and given him a lot of privileges, but Steve hasn’t really given him the space to explore—but now he wants to. 

He sees King and he realizes this is a guy who has street knowledge. He sees systems and understands how the streets work. It’s in the way [King] moves through life, how he dresses, how he identifies, and in the slang and the stories he tells. But it’s also in how he interacts with people. “What’s up, beloved?” All of these things are exciting to Steve. He’s like, I want identity. I want agency. I want to be someone and I don’t know what that is yet. It’s a little bit of trying to get out of the mold that his dad tried to put him in and discover it for himself. King is the first step to freedom, and more importantly, King exercises his own freedom—even though [King] doesn’t really have it yet either.


Watching Monster, I am reminded slightly of your character in Waves. How would you describe the relationship between Steve and Tyler?
They’re both young men who have come into a level of privilege. Waves deals with some of the same issues with the dad having an idea of who the boy is supposed to be. But it’s also an act of love and protection. It’s really challenging to receive that love in that way. Tyler is way more hard-headed and Tyler is a bit more reactionary and not an observer like Steve. He’s constantly studying people, so he’s a better judge of character than Tyler is. 

They’re both boys who are expected to be great. The expectation is so much greater than what they should have to be. That becomes way too much pressure in a society that is trying to oppress you every chance they get. 

Walter Dean Myers did a great job by not revealing too much in the book about what actually happened the night of the robbery, which allows you to draw a conclusion on your own. The film’s ending is a bit more definitive and you see that both versions of events are true. What do you make of Steve’s involvement in the robbery? 
He’s gotten hip to the game. He’s like, No one’s going to let me be human. No one’s going to try to actually see me. The only way this works is if I play their game better than them. The truth is grey and it’s all interpretation and how they choose to see whatever that moment was is irrelevant.

At the end of the day, he’s like, I know I don’t deserve to be here so I need to do whatever I need to do to survive as well. That’s what we always do as Black people. We do what we need to do to survive.

Kristin Corry is a Senior Staff Writer for VICE.