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Film based on Young Adult novel explores justice system through Black teen's eyes

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Actor Kelvin Harrison Jr. and producer Tonya Lewis Lee discuss their new Netflix film, "Monster." It focuses on Steve Harmon, a 17-year-old honor student who finds himself charged with felony murder. First on "CBS This Morning," Lee and Harrison talk about the message behind the film.

Video Transcript

GAYLE KING: Turning now to a new Netflix film that examines the US justice system through the eyes of a Black teenager. It's called "Monster." It stars actor Kelvin Harrison Jr., remember his name. He plays 17-year-old Steve Harmon, an aspiring filmmaker who finds himself on trial, charged with felony murder for a robbery gone wrong. It's a film adaptation of Walter Dean Myers' award-winning novel of the same name. In this clip, Harmon's mother, played by actress Jennifer Hudson, visits him in prison.

- You've already missed a lot.

- I know.

- People come back from these type of situations. They make it through it and then they don't look back. This doesn't change who you are, Steve. You understand me?

- Yeah.

- You can still go to film school. You can still do great things.

- Yeah. Yeah, I can.


GAYLE KING: Yeah, you can always count on mom. Tomya-- Tonya Lewis Lee is one of the film's producer and Kelvin Harrison Jr. join us now for an interview that you'll see first on "CBSS"-- "CBS This Morning," the name of our show hasn't changed. We welcome you both. Kelvin, let me just say this, your performance is knockout. Bravo, bravo, bravo to you.

Stand by for just a second because Tonya, I want to start with you, Ms. Tonya Lewis Lee, because this is really your baby. You have been trying to get this project to in front of the audience for a very long time. You read the book back in 1999. 2018, it got rave reviews at Sundance. Then the pandemic hit. And finally, you get it to Netflix. So I thank you, Tonya, for bringing it to us because I watched it and I'm still haunted by what I saw on the screen. Why was this so important to you?

TONYA LEWIS LEE: Well, thank you, Gayle, and thank you for having us here this morning. I think that Walter Dean Myers just wrote an amazing novel that essentially is a fable for young people about sort of being careful about who you associate with. It's also a story about the over incarceration of our youth. Does the-- does the punishment fit the crime? Did he or did he do this or does the punishment fit the crime? And so it's important to me that we have this conversation about what are we doing with our youth.

GAYLE KING: That's the thing, Tonya. Does the punishment fit the crime and did he do it was the question that kept me at the edge of my bed as I was watching it. And Kelvin, let me talk to you because at one point in the movie, your own attorney-- attorney says, the juror has decided that you're guilty because you're young and you're Black and you're on trial. What more do they need to know about you? She said, our job is to show them that you're a human being. And your character says, I am a human being.

So I want to know from you, did this movie affect you or make you rethink some things in your own life?

KELVIN HARRISON JR.: Yeah, I mean, absolutely. I think, you know, like Steve, I grew up in a private-- I went to a private school--

GAYLE KING: Your character, Steve Harmon, yes.

KELVIN HARRISON JR.: --yes, Steve Harmon. And I guess stepping into life, I think that oftentime, I was sitting there thinking, I was like, am I anomaly? Am I, you know-- am I not-- am I exempt? And I-- I guess I'm not. And that's why, I think going through life, I've had to kind of re-evaluate how I interact with people, how I interact with myself, and remember to not compromise my truth in the process. So I kind of did that through the movie in real time, so yeah.

ANTHONY MASON: Tonya, Gayle-- it's Anthony. Gayle mentioned that you actually filmed this back in 2017. It went to Sundance in 2018. It's finally out in 2021. I don't think people realize how much work goes into getting a film out to an audience. What's it like to have to have patience for that and how does it feel to finally have it have an audience?

GAYLE KING: Tonya's relentless, it seems, when it's something she believes in.

TONYA LEWIS LEE: Wow. Yeah. Well, I will tell you the journey started long before 2017 as well. You know, my producing partner, Nikki Silver and I optioned this book back in 2005 actually. Had the rights, lost the rights, got them back. And it is a lot of work. It's a lot of putting a lot of pieces together, you know. One of those pieces was bringing John Legend on to write an amazing song, but also be a partner because he cares about the issues.

It's about bringing the right director on. When we brought on Anthony Mandler, who is a director who-- this is his first feature film, but he is a music video director. This story is really Steve's story, so we wanted Anthony to have that-- give us that-- that style and aesthetic that he brings to his music videos, to our film. It's about bringing out the rest of the cast, finding Kelvin and the rest of the cast. So it has been a long, hard journey for us, but we got here. We got it to Netflix and we're thrilled that people can see it.


TONY DOKOUPIL: Hey Kelvin, it's Tony here. I'm curious what-- you talked about how the film changed you. I'm curious, what do you hope that audiences get out of it? And is there any part of you that thinks, maybe there is something fortunate to the fact that it was shot in 2017 but it's coming out today?

KELVIN HARRISON JR.: Yeah, I mean, I feel like, you know, for the-- for the young people, I just think it's important to kind of like maintain your-- your youth and not necessarily be afraid to be curious. Because I think that ultimately, that's how Steve feels. He's like, I'm on trial for just being curious about my life and my story and who I am. And that's-- that's not that's not a crime, you know.

And I think looking at everything that's happening now, it's just, we really need this reassurance of-- of not being gaslit or brainwashed by digesting so much media and so much hate and so much crime and so much abuse and death, and-- and just kind of see our humanity again for what it actually looks like.

GAYLE KING: Yes. That's-- that's what struck me, Kelvin, is that you get to see the humanity of this family, number one. You've got a little brother in the scene and he wants to be a superhero and he goes, why can't I just be your big brother? There's some very sweet, touching moments that touch on humanity and Tonya, back to you for a second because the cast that you got, ASAP Rocky, Jeffrey Wright, Jennifer Hudson, Nas, John David Washington. How did you pull a cast like that together?

TONYA LEWIS LEE: Well, again, I have to say, Walter Dean Myers. I think the novel itself was just such a galvanizing piece of work that everyone wanted to come to work on it. I mean, ASAP Rocky said it's one of the books that he read when he was in high school that he really loved. So he was happy to par-- participate. So you know, I think we had a great-- great subject matter. And so artists want to play in good work. And I will say, I hope Kelvin has a career as long as Norman Lloyd 'cos he's such a great actor.

GAYLE KING: Oh yeah. Beautifully said and so true.

Kelvin, I know we gotta go quickly, but I understand that you hung out with Tonya and Spike's kids to get the lay of the land, running around in New York. I'm thinking, that's a great tour guide to have, Jackson and Satchel. What'd you learn from them?

KELVIN HARRISON JR.: They're-- I don't know. They're just so smart and so fun. And like, I had-- there's so much music I hadn't heard from-- from like-- with the stuff that they listened to from like Frank Ocean, and just like, I have not said that I wasn't listening to anything, but I learned the slang, I learned bet, and I don't know. I'm still trying to keep up.

GAYLE KING: All right. Well, bravo to you both. Well done guys. Well done, Tonya Lewis Lee. Thank you, Kelvin Harrison. May you have a long career as Tonya pointed out. "Monster," by the way, is available for streaming right now on Netflix.