Five Favorite Films

Kelvin Harrison Jr.'s Five Favorite Films

The star of Luce, Waves, and the new Netflix drama, Monster, gets personal as he reveals his love for a set of deeply complicated characters and the performances that brought them to life.

by | May 5, 2021 | Comments

Kelvin Harrison Jr.

(Photo by Gareth Cattermole/Getty Images)

“You’re young, you’re Black, and you’re on trial. What else do they need to know?” The line, spoken by a defense attorney to her client, Steve Harmon (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), sums up the tension at the heart of Anthony Mandler’s Monster. On trial for allegedly having served as lookout during a bodega robbery that turned deadly, Harmon finds himself face to face with the ugly reality so many young Black boys before him live with every day. Dubbed a “monster” by the prosecution, he’s called to prove not just his innocence but his humanity – to the jury, to the judge, and, yes, even to his lawyer.

An adaptation of Walter Dean Myers’s critically acclaimed YA novel by the same name, the film first premiered back in 2018 at the Sundance Film Festival. Had it come out shortly after its festival premiere, the gripping legal drama would have marked the arrival of a major talent. Harrison Jr.’s first foray into leading man territory is electrifying. The young actor captures Steve’s despair with aplomb as the cinephile teen watches his carefree life slip away when he’s entangled in a Rashomon-like trial where his version of the truth may not pass muster. As it turned out, audiences first got to see Harrison Jr. shine in films like Luce, Waves, and, most recently, The Trial of the Chicago 7, where he played Fred Hampton. Less an introduction, then, Monster nevertheless further establishes the New Orleans-born actor as one of the most exciting actors of his generation.

Ahead of the movie’s release on Netflix this May, Harrison Jr. spoke with Rotten Tomatoes about his Five Favorite Films. Despite coming up with them on the spot, his collection of women-led stories feel like a cohesive canon that reveals what thrills the young actor the most, namely the chance to watch performers at the top of their game expertly bringing to life complicated characters caught between who they are and who they wished they could be.


I just love the visuals. I think Tilda [Swinton]’s performance is so sick. It’s insane. The choices she makes are so great. There’s something about seeing her internalize her situation and her relationship with her son, and kind of take the brunt of her not knowing how to love a child the way she thought she would, that motherly instinct she thought she had not kicking in, and how that affected the child. It also plays into my interest in parent-child dynamics. I feel like in every movie I’m always interested in, like, who are my parents? And how did they either win with me, or really mess up? And how has that affected how I behave in return? But really, it’s just Tilda’s performance – and, you know, Ezra [Miller] is also amazing, John C. Reilly is amazing, the little girl’s amazing, and the visuals are sick and dope, so, yeah.

American Hustle (2013)

92%

First of all, I love Amy Adams in this movie. I love the whole switching up the two personalities thing. Like, I love that everyone’s playing a part. You could tell there’s just a lot of improv and a lot of on-the-fly realizations. They feel so rough and so raw and so alive. That was exciting to me. I love the line where she goes, “The key to people is what they believe and what they want to believe, and I want to believe that we were real.” That always stuck with me because I really do kind of carry that to every movie. Like, people really do believe what they want to believe. I always found that fascinating. So yeah, I love the “hustler” aspect of American Hustle.

Blue Jasmine (2013)

90%

I mean, Cate Blanchett! Her performance is unmatched. I really do kind of look at that and go, whoa! What a master class! I also just love the Blanche DuBois of it all. I love, love, love it. I think it’s so good and it’s fun to watch her spiral. I think it’s a master class in a spiral, in watching someone just like deny, deny, deny, deny, deny, deny — and I think we do that so often in life. She just does a really good job of showing it, and trying to smile through it, and also just spilling out and shooting out her privilege. I also think that’s interesting about the performance, just being like, “This is what I am.” But it’s also becoming who you want to become and convincing yourself that you’re that person again, the whole American Hustle of it all.

Closer (2004)

68%

I don’t know that I have much to say with that movie. I really just love the writing of that film. I just think the way the stories kind of intertwine, and it’s so messy. It’s so messy! I watched it recently with someone and they didn’t really like it, they weren’t vibing with it, and it really upset me, to be honest. I don’t even know if I can really explain why it upset me. I guess this is getting very vulnerable at this point but I, personally, in my life, I truly think I’ve been very messy in my relationships. And I think it’s hard not to be. And I think the movie does a really good job at kind of highlighting how much we don’t know what we want and how we want everything, and just the games we play, and the power games and power dynamics we kind of subscribe to. I don’t know, it’s just exciting. And the performances! Natalie Portman at the strip club! That whole scene. It’s just so good. And Clive! I don’t know, we’d have to sit down and just talk about the movie beat by beat.

Dreamgirls (2006)

78%

That movie I just love. I grew up in music, so I love the music. But I also love the drama. I love the girl group drama. The fact that somebody was over there doing something she wasn’t supposed to, and somebody was in love, and somebody thinks they’re supposed to be a star, and somebody thinks it’s funny. I also love the underdog story. I love the idea of someone having a gift and the business trying to get in the way of the gift. It’s what I learned, too, in this business; like, everybody’s trying to play. Everybody wants something, everybody’s trying to level up in some way, everyone has some dream, and everyone’s gonna leave some legacy behind. And I love the idea of Effie just being like, “What? Like, I know I’m gifted and I just want to sing, period.” That’s it. It’s not that deep. Like, I want to get what I deserve. And I think that’s the thing: this is a story about deserving. And it’s a story about friendship and not allowing the hype of the industry getting the best of you and kind of turning you into something else. Because it’s just not that deep. I think that’s the thing about all of these films, too, is people are going crazy over stupid s–t. And everyone starts to believe the hype and start reading their own press and believe in their own press and start thinking that they’re something that they’re not. And that is not the key to happiness. It is not for any of them.

Manuel Betancourt for Rotten Tomatoes: Hearing you talk about all these movies, it strikes me that you are very fascinated with characters who are straddling the line between what they want to tell other people and the stories they’re telling themselves. That feels like what’s going on with Steve in Monster. Is that what drew you to the part?

Kelvin Harrison Jr.: Yeah, I think, it’s the search for identity. I think that’s the thing about those characters. They’re in a moment where they’re trying to really figure out what they want and, I mean, that’s every movie, that’s everyone in everything — we’re always trying to figure out what we want, what we need, and how do we get it. [Steve]’s 17 and his particular circumstances are: he’s privileged, he’s Black, and he’s curious. And now suddenly everyone’s sitting there trying to tell him who he is, what he can do, and that, because he’s Black, he suddenly is grouped in with a bunch of other guys. And now he’s on trial and it doesn’t really make sense to him. He’s just like, “Dude!” I’m just trying to figure out, like, what sneakers look like. I’m trying to figure out where he got jewelry from, or if he likes that girl, just stupid s–t. And it’s very simple. It isn’t that deep. And now he’s supposed to be really serious and tough to try to convince people of his humanity. He’s not innocent until proven guilty, he’s guilty until proven innocent. And he has to determine that based on somebody else’s standard of humanity.

And that’s such a wild bag to fit in. I also found that when I first started working. I was sitting there (and I even find myself in this trap now) with people telling me who I am and why I need to be a certain way and what people will accept and what people won’t accept and what people will think is, you know, too crazy: You need to do this part or you can’t do this and you can’t dress this way, you can’t say that, you know? I’m just kind of like, “What? I’m 26. Let me decide that.” I think that was the case when I first got the job. I was exploring that then, and I’m still exploring it now. I think we do that for the rest of our lives.

Monster

(Photo by Netflix © 2021)

RT: A film like Monster feels like it’s part of a constellation of projects, alongside Luce, Waves, and Monsters and Men. What are the things you’re looking for in these parts and in the projects?

Harrison: I think it’s something that the films are drawn to me and I’m drawn to them because of the path that I had gone on. One kind of serves the other, in a way. I don’t know if I want to say it’s a typecast thing because I don’t really think it’s like that, to be honest. It’s kind of more like chapters. I’ve always seen my career like that. When I first started, my first job when I got my SAG card was on 12 Years a Slave. And then after that, Roots came. And then, after that, Underground came, and then after that, Birth of a Nation came in. That’s the “Understanding My History” chapter. And then I feel like I got into like this “Black Lives Matter” chapter: Monster happened and then Monsters and Men happened. And then Luce happened, and Waves happened. And I think all of those talk about young Black men dealing with the trauma from slavery. The origins of their trauma started then.

And it’s interesting because now, with Godfather of Harlem and BB King [in Baz Luhrmann’s untitled Elvis project], I’ve been dealing with the ’60s now, the Civil Rights era. And, I think, you know, it’s unpacking what blackness means for me and for everyone in this moment as we really start to pull back the curtain and go, let’s take a look at the systems. Let’s take a look at that because we’re not standing for it anymore.

So I guess the movies have been an examination, finding the nuance that these directors and writers and performers are all trying to unpack based on the knowledge they’ve attained over their time on Earth. And if that’s what I end up doing for the rest of my career, that’s cool. That stuff means something to me, you know? It means something from me.


Monster is available on Netflix from May 7, 2021.

On an Apple device? Follow Rotten Tomatoes on Apple News.

Thumbnail image: Gareth Cattermole/Getty Images, Francois Duhamel/©Columbia Pictures, ©DreamWorks, ©Columbia, ©Sony Pictures Classics, ©Oscilloscope Pictures

Tag Cloud

dramedy stoner 007 Grammys Warner Bros. breaking bad finale casting Hear Us Out Paramount comic books crime drama travel reviews ID werewolf OneApp composers police drama a nightmare on elm street fast and furious CMT cults docuseries rotten Star Wars romance 72 Emmy Awards Drama Esquire Disney Channel Exclusive Video Ellie Kemper ghosts Mary Poppins Returns BET Awards miniseries Showtime unscripted Cosplay Bravo 2021 Chernobyl sitcom Fall TV docudrama crime thriller versus nature football Watching Series remakes SXSW 20th Century Fox new york Columbia Pictures Super Bowl Sundance Now Arrowverse psychological thriller Trivia TruTV APB Biopics streaming Awards Tour See It Skip It Creative Arts Emmys Comic Book TCM Star Trek Captain marvel Women's History Month Disney Schedule toy story razzies TLC Polls and Games renewed TV shows adaptation harry potter batman hist indie Best and Worst NBC zombies Valentine's Day Red Carpet Nickelodeon documentary book National Geographic PaleyFest Freeform obituary venice YouTube Premium game show Tumblr Spring TV Cartoon Network ViacomCBS trailers comic Box Office documentaries Countdown cats supernatural DGA Thanksgiving Peacock Superheroe live action TIFF GoT Premiere Dates adventure 4/20 Mystery LGBT 21st Century Fox Trophy Talk TV spain First Look medical drama movies facebook streaming movies Anna Paquin FXX high school hidden camera Netflix Christmas movies disaster comics news screen actors guild aliens Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt CBS All Access AMC pirates of the caribbean witnail comiccon Tarantino doctor who book adaptation spider-man Interview WGN theme song Vudu chucky Black History Month scene in color Chilling Adventures of Sabrina Universal TV One YA Nominations Sci-Fi Calendar Writers Guild of America E! E3 Acorn TV period drama Amazon Binge Guide robots Starz HBO Max Elton John Dark Horse Comics Marvel Studios monster movies RT21 classics kids social media History target black Paramount Network Amazon Studios prank 2018 TCA boxoffice Pop Disney+ Disney Plus singing competition Black Mirror TV renewals Winners Kids & Family Hallmark PBS italian Mary Tyler Moore CW Seed elevated horror TV movies natural history spanish Legendary independent Crackle Amazon Prime Sony Pictures scorecard Mindy Kaling Paramount Plus Song of Ice and Fire sag awards Pop TV serial killer American Society of Cinematographers slashers Horror directors films Endgame cancelled TV series cinemax Mary poppins sequel binge biography Amazon Prime Video Sundance TV archives cancelled TV shows Funimation New York Comic Con Pacific Islander crime Lionsgate Academy Awards new star wars movies foreign X-Men festival The Purge discovery deadpool Toys latino transformers cars BBC One USA Network Turner Classic Movies YouTube asian-american Awards IFC Films movie name the review FOX LGBTQ tv talk TCA Winter 2020 BBC America Rock worst movies 93rd Oscars worst Travel Channel 78th Annual Golden Globe Awards Cannes ratings A24 critics ABC Family children's TV crossover ABC Musical SundanceTV Television Critics Association universal monsters strong female leads Heroines Stephen King IFC sports The Walt Disney Company Marvel Television rom-coms FX on Hulu Musicals Family satire Photos Ovation vampires Epix romantic comedy Reality Competition ESPN politics YouTube Red jamie lee curtis CBS international Turner canceled richard e. Grant Broadway 2019 Hallmark Christmas movies Image Comics space Fox Searchlight superman Discovery Channel cops Holidays mission: impossible video Reality Food Network blockbuster popular TV Land A&E heist movie Adult Swim VOD best Western Nat Geo Comics on TV marvel cinematic universe twilight Christmas VICE Pirates OWN Animation Quiz HBO Go DC Comics laika Sneak Peek ABC Signature 2016 sequels Logo nfl Winter TV south america dark animated Disney streaming service Masterpiece true crime DirecTV Ghostbusters DC Universe Spectrum Originals james bond Television Academy Shondaland french Pixar Marathons NYCC australia stand-up comedy 99% Election award winner boxing game of thrones comedies Shudder free movies dc The Arrangement die hard Year in Review anime toronto CNN MSNBC joker Extras FX Certified Fresh spy thriller king kong Film Rom-Com spinoff political drama rt archives cooking talk show nbcuniversal Rocketman Avengers zero dark thirty Tomatazos concert women new zealand spanish language Podcast superhero Teen aapi Sundance Crunchyroll USA Set visit Britbox Apple Superheroes BBC japanese science fiction rotten movies we love dceu screenings Tubi Emmys cancelled blockbusters green book The Witch Oscars reboot TNT diversity kong WarnerMedia MTV Apple TV Plus Summer Country scary movies cancelled television PlayStation Marvel Pet Sematary dragons Martial Arts child's play Brie Larson telelvision Infographic what to watch GLAAD Action TCA Awards anthology video on demand The CW psycho San Diego Comic-Con Baby Yoda RT History Character Guide DC streaming service TBS halloween tv war festivals cartoon parents teaser Emmy Nominations series indiana jones jurassic park Alien El Rey ITV HBO Lucasfilm 45 Holiday Opinion all-time Walt Disney Pictures blaxploitation Film Festival stop motion quibi lord of the rings 2020 Comedy Central christmas movies Pride Month Fantasy BAFTA VH1 Mudbound based on movie television Hulu Lifetime technology hollywood golden globe awards kaiju Spike Rocky fresh SDCC Apple TV+ Comedy The Academy know your critic TCA 2017 Lifetime Christmas movies godzilla 71st Emmy Awards canceled TV shows Music First Reviews thriller 2017 hispanic emmy awards Disney Plus franchise historical drama mockumentary golden globes MCU 2015 saw dogs Netflix justice league 24 frames Classic Film The Walking Dead GIFs President criterion BET mutant Video Games Trailer revenge halloween zombie Fox News Syfy