AFI Documentary Review: ‘They Call Us Monsters’

From for-profit prisons to the death penalty to massive racial disparities in incarceration to the completely overtaxed public defender system, the horrors of America’s criminal justice system are legion. America houses 22% of the world’s prisoners, including nearly one third of the world’s female prisoners. The problems of mass incarceration are so varied, complex, and deeply entrenched that to even consider the problem as a whole is like trying to contemplate infinity: the human mind is simply not capable of grasping it. That’s why a documentary like “They Call Us Monsters” is so valuable. It breaks the problem down into a single, concrete issue—minors being charges as adults and thus receiving extremely long sentences—and breaks that issue down even further into the story of three boys, Jarad, Juan, and Antonio, each facing the possibility of life sentences for their crimes.

Director Benjamin Lear (the son of legendary TV producer Norman Lear, who, incidentally, was the subject of AFI Docs’ closing-night film) casts a sympathetic but probing light on these boys. We get to know them first through the lens of a screenwriting class, which allows us to see these boys in all their funny, creative, teenage goofiness. It’s hard to imagine these silly kids as violent as “monsters”; they seem so harmless. But as Lear patiently makes clear, these are not the perfect angels of liberal imagining; they have each committed violent, heinous offenses. One girl is paralyzed for life because of one of the boy’s crimes.

Lear strikes a delicate balance throughout the film, portraying these boys as actual human beings without simply glossing over their crimes. The question embedded in the film is what is to be done? Does it benefit anyone for a 16-year-old kid to get sentenced to a life in prison for something he did while his brain is not yet fully developed? We know that the vast majority of violent crimes are committed before someone turns 23. Might it not be more humane to give someone a second chance?

Lear clearly has a perspective on this issue, but he has managed to make a film that clearly advocates for a particular point of view while not coming off as simple propaganda. “They Call Us Monsters” is rigorously fair and humane. It is somewhat formulaic in structure but complex in its exploration of an issue with no easy answers. Having laid out this difficult topic, Lear doesn’t simply throw up his hands however. The film is framed around the debate on California bill SB 260, which mandates parole hearings after 15 years of incarceration for people who were convicted of crimes committed before they turned 18. This is an important step in the right direction, and it has direct implications for one of the boys profiled in the film, but it’s not a panacea. Genuine reform of the criminal justice system would require treating criminals as actual human beings rather than monsters, and that’s the value of Lear’s film, that it allows us to see three boys not simply as criminals, but as people—complex, flawed, even dangerous, but fully human and therefore redeemable.

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