'No one's exempt': Netflix drama 'Monster' shows the 'humanity' of a Black teen on trial

·5 min read

Kelvin Harrison Jr. is the very definition of a rising star.

Ever since his big-screen debut in best picture Oscar-winner "12 Years a Slave" in 2013, Harrison, 26, has become a fixture of Sundance dramas ("Mudbound," "Luce"), A24 films ("It Comes at Night," "Waves") and awards contenders ("The Trial of the Chicago 7," in which he played Black Panther chairman Fred Hampton).

His latest project is Netflix's "Monster" (now streaming), adapted from Walter Dean Myers' 1999 young-adult novel. The legal drama follows a 17-year-old Black teen, Steve Harmon (Harrison), an honors student who's accused of being the lookout for a deadly robbery. Jeffrey Wright and Jennifer Hudson co-star as his well-to-do parents, while Tim Blake Nelson plays a teacher who maintains Steve's innocence after the boy is arrested and put on trial.

What to stream this weekend: Netflix's 'Monster,' J Balvin doc 'The Boy From Medellín'

Harrison talks to USA TODAY about the film, his upcoming "Cyrano" movie musical with Peter Dinklage and Baz Luhrmann's "Elvis" biopic, in which he portrays blues icon B.B. King (edited for length and clarity).

Question: A handful of recent films have dealt with systemic racism and police brutality. What's unique about this movie’s perspective?

Kelvin Harrison Jr.: What I like about the book and movie is that we get to see a young Black kid from an affluent Black family doing well for themselves (that's) created a life where they felt like they could have protected him. Because of the work that they've done, he should maybe be exempt from some of these passing altercations with the cops and the justice system. And it just wasn't the case. The movie shows how we group together young Black boys as if they're all the same and don't really factor in nuance. I think that's the thing about this movie that's a little different: No one's exempt and we see that with Steve.

Q: "Monster" premiered at Sundance Film Festival in January 2018, and so much has happened since then regarding racial justice and Black Lives Matter. Does the movie resonate with you any differently now?

Harrison: Looking at everything that's been happening now, it's just reminded me how it's so important that we encourage each other and support each other and don't get into the trap of trying to label and judge each other in our own communities. That's just bringing division in the community and that's the last thing that we need. We've all worked so hard – even my existence in this business is an act of working really hard to get people to see me and understand me. What is a movie like this for, other than to educate and give me more humanity as a Black person? But it doesn't make me exempt (from racial injustice).

Jeffrey Wright, left, and Jennifer Hudson play the parents of a Black high schooler who's accused of being an accessory to murder in Netflix's legal drama "Monster."
Jeffrey Wright, left, and Jennifer Hudson play the parents of a Black high schooler who's accused of being an accessory to murder in Netflix's legal drama "Monster."

Q: Your characters in "Monster," "Waves," "Luce" and "Monsters and Men" are all high achievers. Is that how you'd describe yourself in school?

Harrison: I was actually terrible at school. My thing at school was always, "What're y'all talking 'bout?" I made Cs at best. But I knew how to work hard for the things I wanted. My dad was really strict and taught me work ethic, and I think that (helped in) playing some of these characters. I understood how to cope with pressure and how some pressures lead to some trauma responses, and that's a common theme in a lot of the characters. But in terms of being an overachiever, that was for the birds. (Laughs.) I didn't need school.

Kelvin Harrison, Jr. at the 2019 Tribeca Film Festival in New York.
Kelvin Harrison, Jr. at the 2019 Tribeca Film Festival in New York.

Q: You and Daniel Kaluuya ("Judas and the Black Messiah") both played Black Panther leader Fred Hampton in films this awards season. (Kaluuya won the best supporting actor Oscar for his portrayal). Did you ever get a chance to catch up or swap notes?

Harrison: No, we've never actually (had) a dialogue, but I saw him last year at the BAFTAs, and he came up to me and gave me a hug and said he's proud of me. That meant a lot, and that's the type of thing I'm talking about: the encouragement. It's just so hard to exist right now. But he's been really sweet, and that's enough. We all do what we can just to honor these stories and these icons we get to play. I think that was an acknowledgment of, "I see your work and I respect it," and vice versa to him. He's incredible.

Q: You got to show off your singing chops in last year's "The High Note," and will again in the upcoming "Cyrano" and "Elvis." Was that a deliberate choice to mix music and acting?

Harrison: Music wasn't necessarily the choice. With "High Note," I really wanted to do a rom-com. I thought that'd be fun. With "Cyrano," I love the idea of doing a period piece and a fantasy piece, and that ended up being a musical. I mostly just wanted to live in a fantasy land for a little bit because everything is always so serious with some of my jobs. "Elvis" is another one: It's a lot of escapism. Baz (Luhrmann) is a genius and his interpretation of (Presley's) life is so extraordinary.

Q: What was it like getting to work with Peter Dinklage on "Cyrano?" Are you a massive "Game of Thrones" fan?

Harrison: Oh my God, I've watched every season three times. I'm obsessed. It was funny meeting him for the first time. When you're at work, you can't really do the whole starstruck thing because you have to do your job. Otherwise, they're going to be like, "Get rid of him." (Laughs.) But it was really lovely getting to know the man, and I would say he's a friend of mine now. So cool, so smart and just a really funny dude.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Kelvin Harrison Jr. talks 'Monster,' Baz Luhrmann's 'Elvis' biopic