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‘If you’re black in America you will be pulled over’

‘If you’re black in America you will be pulled over’

January 05
21:27 2019

Reinaldo Marcus Green still remembers the gun. It was 2009. He and his brother Rashaad were in Virginia on a road trip, young New Yorkers with busy lives — Rashaad a rising film-maker, Reinaldo working on Wall Street for insurance company AIG. It was his Mercedes that Rashaad was driving. The car had drifted over the speed limit when a siren yowled. What should have been a simple ticket became something else. The police officer was instantly combative. A question about the logistics of the ticket enraged him. The situation spiralled. Green realised with shock he was going to be arrested. Then he saw that the officer had moved his hand to his pistol.

“I was absolutely certain my brother was about to die. And I was about to die.” Although Green is a crisp and confident speaker, his voice grows quiet retelling the story. In the end, the officer took his hand from his gun. Finally, the Greens were allowed to drive on. Reinaldo was left to consider how an everyday speeding ticket could put him in fear of his life. “But this is what happens in our country to two black men in a Mercedes. This is America.”

Soon afterwards, he followed his brother’s example, leaving AIG to take up film-making. On a cold morning 10 years later, he is in London to discuss his first feature, the compelling Monsters and Men. At the centre are three ordinary New Yorkers, connected by the death of a fourth, killed during an encounter with the police. The film is poised — and furious. It reminds you how a 98-minute movie can bring depth and nuance to what some audiences may know only from headlines — in this case, the black American lives lost to police violence and the others wrecked as a result.

It is, Green says, just a matter of odds. For a person of colour, a certain number of car journeys will result in a crash; others will involve a police officer. “The statistics are what they are. If you’re black in America you will be pulled over, and when you are, the situation may well end badly.” A life can be capsized with terrifying ease. “Arrests could come from nothing, a conviction follows the arrest, and who will give you a job with a record? So you’re left to work on the street.”

Monsters and Men turns on the fate of Big D (played by Samel Edwards), a character we barely meet before a confrontation with the police ends in gunshots. A real-life parallel is grimly obvious — the killing of Eric Garner, who, like Big D, sold loose cigarettes outside a corner deli, and whose July 2014 death on Staten Island after being put in a chokehold by a police officer inspired national protests.

Furious: Reinaldo Marcus Green’s film ‘Monsters and Men’

Green grew up on Staten Island — as a boy, he delivered pizza in the neighbourhood where Garner died. There are notes of autobiography elsewhere too. In the film’s opening scene, a black driver is pulled over, his response weary but faultlessly polite. As he drives away, we see a flash of his own police badge, kept out of sight as he is working undercover. Green and his brother were raised by a single father who worked as an attorney within New York law enforcement. “He was a non-uniform officer. So oftentimes, when we were with him, he would be treated by police officers as they treated ordinary black men. Then he would show his shield and you heard, ‘Oh I’m sorry, sir.’”

In a blue-collar world where the NYPD lived among the people they policed, the teenage Green showed promise at baseball. Now, among his trio of central characters, one is a quiet young man on the cusp of a professional career, drawn to activism after being stopped and searched. Green is comfortable if audiences are reminded of the American football player Colin Kaepernick and taking a knee. “It deserves reflection, how a protest which was about stopping killing was reframed to become about disrespecting the flag.”

For Green, baseball didn’t work out. Instead, he became an elementary school teacher in New Jersey, before transferring to Wall Street in 2005. He is frank about the circumstances — he was, he says, dating the daughter of a senior figure at AIG. The role was in talent diversity. While he doubled his salary, he became uneasy. “Not to say the intentions weren’t good, because without those programmes there is no pipeline for people that look like me within the financial sector. But there was a lot of window dressing.” The crash of 2008 bore out his hunch that positions like his were seen within finance as inessential — he was let go, and although re-hired a year later, the experience clarified his future.

Acting in one of his brother’s short films kindled his own desire to tell stories on camera. Finally he quit Wall Street, enrolling at NYU to study film. When he and Rashaad were boys, his father was an obsessive fan of Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing — now, Lee became his tutor. The influence is visible in the setting of Monsters and Men not on Staten Island but in Bedford-Stuyvesant, the fabled Brooklyn neighbourhood that provided the location of Lee’s 1989 masterpiece.

Thirty years ago, Lee was a rare film-maker of colour in the American mainstream. Now, Green joins a number of high-profile black directors — he lists Barry Jenkins, Ava DuVernay, Ryan Coogler and Boots Riley. “But the fact I can name them means we still have a long way to go. We need to get to where I couldn’t name every prominent black director!” Complexity lies too in the arrival of professional success — Monsters and Men aside, much of 2018 was spent in London directing the next series of the acclaimed crime drama Top Boy for Netflix — at a time of national division.

Green prefers not to say the name of the current president. He also recognises that there was a schism in his country long before the 2016 election. He tells a story about a friend from his high school American football team. Like many young people from Staten Island, the boy joined the NYPD. The pair remained in touch and in 2014, Green asked him to appear in a short film, Stop — the story of a young athlete questioned by police that would inspire a section of Monsters and Men. Stop made it into the Sundance film festival; the following January, Green and his friend visited Utah for the screening. There, after celebrating, they found themselves re-watching the footage of the death of Eric Garner, caught on cameraphone by a passer-by.

“And it became apparent we were looking at two different things. Because I saw someone who should be alive. There was nothing else to say. But my friend was like, ‘Ray, he was resisting arrest.’ And again I said, ‘But he should be alive.’ And my friend said, ‘Ray, you don’t know what we deal with every day.’ And we went back and forth for a long time, until my friend got upset.” He pauses and sighs. “It’s very hard to have those conversations because oftentimes they end without resolution. All you have is this difference of opinion. And right now, most of our politics just dies there.”

‘Monsters and Men’ is released in the UK on January 18

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