Monster's Ball transcends racial clichés in small-town America.
Directed by Marc Forster
Written by Milo Addica & Will Rokos
Starring Billy Bob Thornton, Halle Berry, Peter Boyle
You won’t hear a single “Nigger lover” in Monster's Ball. When Hank Grotowski
(Billy Bob Thornton) and Leticia Musgrove (Halle Berry) walk down the street
or flirt at the diner, no one gives them a second look. This small town in Georgia,
deep in the American South, is portrayed in realistic fashion. The racial tension
between this white man and black woman comes not from the community, but from
Back at Hank’s house, no feelings are spared by his viciously racist and misogynist
father, Buck, played to infuriating perfection by Peter Boyle. Director Marc
Foster is not dismissing the daily, public reality of racism in America, but
has deftly avoided the trap of easy provocation. Nigger-hatin’ hicks cruising
Main St. with shotguns are old hat. He understands that racism is destructive
and resilient because it flows from generation to generation behind closed doors.
Its power manifests during casual conversations at the dinner table, during
father-son chats when the kids are too young to question the tenets of their
Hank is a corrections officer at the state penitentiary. So is his son, Sonny
(Heath Ledger), and so was his father. Lawrence Musgrove (Sean Combs) is soon
to be executed at the prison after spending 11 years on death row. Leticia is
Lawrence’s wife, struggling to raise their son and soon to lose their house
because she can no longer afford the payments. A lesser movie would follow the
obvious path and grasp at your emotions. Films like Dead Man Walking lobby first
for your indignation and then for your tears. Monster's Ball instead
concentrates on the consequences of this intersection of lives. Foster gets
the execution out of the way early and then follows the impact on those involved.
Monster's Ball isn’t about racism so much as it’s about rising above
the destiny of your blood. Hank is a man who hasn’t felt anything in years.
He’s been relying on inherited feelings, inherited worldviews, inherited ways
of dealing with life. In his mid-forties, with a grown son and dead wife, he
hasn’t yet become his own man. His growth comes when he finally decides to transcend
the limitations of his upbringing. His neighbors aren’t upset with him that
he’s dating a black woman; his father is upset. (And, just maybe, he’s upset
with himself as well.) His is a classic masculine crisis: I’ve become my father.
In his case, his father is an angry, hateful man trapped in a decaying body.
Late in the film, when Buck has finally gotten a taste of what he deserves,
he looks to Hank with sad, frightened eyes, and says, “I don’t want to go out
“Neither do I,” Hank replies. With that, he has derailed the destiny of his
Leticia’s parallel comes in the most quiet of moments, very late in the film,
and is told only through her eyes. Halle Berry earned her Academy Award.
For much of its 111 minutes – a slow 111 minutes without any musical score –
Monster's Ball is an uncomfortable film. The characters are flawed; their
morals are questionable. Hank has inherited his father’s racism and treats his
grown son (Heath Ledger) like garbage. Leticia beats her overweight son when
she discovers his candy bar stash. No attempts are made to suggest that Lawrence
doesn’t deserve to be executed. The father only seems like an extreme caricature
if you’ve never met a man like him. Fact is, these are the people who make up
the real world, and their tragedies are just as valid as their supposed betters.
Three weeks ago, four men killed five people during a bank robbery in the U.S.
The next day, a police officer killed himself after learning that he’d botched
a background check that could’ve put one of the men behind bars and thereby
possibly prevented the murders. Movies can fool us into thinking that human
tragedy must be grand. Heroes are not heroes unless they save the world, and
they’re not heroes unless they’re pure of heart and championing a great, noble
cause. It’s easy to forget that human tragedies are, more often than not, quite
small, and that they can have the power to completely destroy lives.
That’s why Monster's Ball is compelling: the scale of tragedy is grand,
but only for these individuals. Three people die in this film. They all die
in the first act, and their deaths probably wouldn’t make headlines outside
of their tiny town. But for those affected, these deaths change everything.
Hank and Leticia are average people living the lives put before them. We aren’t
asked to automatically forgive them for their past transgressions. We aren’t
even asked to necessary like them. We must, however, consider from whence they’ve
come. We are asked to consider them as simplehuman beings, no better or worse
Humanity is fragile. Death comes unexpectedly and unfairly, and sometimes the
good people in the world suffer inappropriately while the supposedly bad ones
continue to live, ignorant of the pain they’ve caused. The corollary is that
bad seeds can grow up – even late in life – to forge a bit of goodness in their
lives. Monster's Ball asks you to consider that without getting lost
in the flashpoint of knee-jerk condemnation.
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