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 themselves.
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 tainted blood.
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.
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 like this."
do I," Hank replies. With that, he has derailed the destiny
of his blood.
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 than us.
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