BY ANGELA BARBUTI
“Monster,” the filmed adaptation of a young adult novel that chronicles a high school honors student from Harlem on trial for murder, made its premiere in the Dramatic Competition of the Sundance Film Festival earlier this week.
Written by the late Harlem-raised Walter Dean Myers, the book, about the killing of a store owner and its aftermath, was a New York Times best seller, and also earned a Coretta Scott King Honor and a National Book Award.
Producer Nikki Silver took on the powerful project, adapting the book, also called “Monster,” for the screen with her business partner Tonya Lewis Lee, who is married to Spike Lee. The Emmy Award-winning pair, who met on another children’s novel adaptation, launched a film and television production company called Tonik in 2012. “It’s the combination of our names, and also we like to say we’re a tonic for the world,” Silver said. “To do projects that are focused on women and diversity, because that’s who we are and that’s what we’re about.”
The film’s star-studded cast includes Jennifer Hudson, ASAP Rocky, Nas, Jeffrey Wright and Kelvin Harrison Jr. as its protagonist. The overarching question Silver, a Washington Heights native now living on the Upper West Side, wants to examine is whether just one act can define a young person’s entire life.
How did you get your start in children’s programming?I was always interested in media and the impact it could have. And I was introduced to this incredible woman, Orly Wiseman, who was working at “Reading Rainbow” at the time. And I was always going between teaching and media, and children’s programming, to me, was the perfect marriage between the two.
What did your job entail as producer of “Reading Rainbow?”“Reading Rainbow” was some of the best years of my life. “Rainbow” gave us the opportunity to be involved with just amazing literature, travel across the country and tell great stories. Children’s television today is very different than it was when we were doing “Reading Rainbow,” because everything now is mostly animated. And back then, having LeVar [Burton, host of “Reading Rainbow”] speaking directly to and with kids, was so empowering.
You were president of On Screen Entertainment and worked on many children’s literature adaptations. Give us an example.What was great was, from working in children’s television and with “Reading Rainbow,” I was able to be involved in the adaption of some amazing young adult novels. Those included “Miracle’s Boys” by Jacqueline Woodson, which was a miniseries we did for Teen Nick. And actually, it was on that project where I met my now-partner of Tonik, Tonya Lewis Lee. We were put together to produce “Miracle’s Boys,” which was just an amazing six-part series. Spike Lee directed the first and last episodes and Neema Barnette and LeVar Burton and Bill Duke. It was an incredible group coming together to tell this story about three half-black, half-Puerto Rican orphans who were living in Harlem.
Tell us the story of “Monster” and the message you want audiences to take away from it.“Monster” is a cautionary tale for teens. It is the story of a 17-year-old black kid from Harlem who’s from a great family, is a great student and an aspiring filmmaker. And he gets involved with some kids in the neighborhood and it’s a “was he or wasn’t he involved in a bodega robbery that goes wrong?” And somebody is murdered. And he, Steve Harmon, is now on trial for 25 to life. All teens make very silly mistakes. I have teen children. But it’s about how one act can define your life and should it? And why our system doesn’t allow for teens to make difficult choices, sometimes bad ones. But how their whole life shouldn’t be given away for that.
How did you find your cast?Well, first, Tonya and I brought on our director, Anthony Mandler. It’s his first feature. He comes out of the video music world. He’s done music videos for Rihanna, really every major music talent. And together, we started assembling this amazing cast, starting with our Steve Harmon, Kelvin Harrison Jr., who is a superstar. And then, ASAP Rocky came aboard to play King. He will tell you that this is the one book he read in high school and he loved. And he’s a Harlem boy, and we thought that was so important. And then Jennifer Hudson and Jeffrey Wright came on to play the parents, which is amazing. And Nas, who plays Raymond “Sunset” Green. And very early on, Tonya and I brought on John Legend and Get Lifted Film Co. to produce with us. John just wrote the most incredible song to go with the film. We’re thrilled.
“Monster” was filmed on location in New York. Where are some places you shot at?We were all through Harlem. We were in Jackie Robinson Park. On the streets. We were in the Brooklyn courthouses. Really all throughout Manhattan.
Which neighborhood did you grow up in?I grew up in Washington Heights. I’ve moved a sum total of four miles down the Hudson River, because I’m an Upper West Side girl. So it’s New York through and through for me.