Like father like son, or so the monster’s ball tumbles. In Marc Foster’s cure-the-hate melodrama, chocolate love goes a long way in soothing frayed white-black relations. A darling non-argument is also mounted against the death penalty, with Lawrence Musgrove (P. Diddy) doing the prettiest dead-man-walking routine you will see in your life and the millennium-Georgia setting easily confused for ’50s Alabama thanks to Buck Grotowski’s (Peter Boyle) old-school contemptuousness. The ex-cop-turned-emphysema-victim dishes out “porch monkey” and “nigger juice” with such histrionic zeal he would have made James Coburn proud. His son Hank (Billy Bob Thornton) is similarly afflicted, although his grandson Sonny (Heath Ledger) looks to stray from the litter, which means exiting from the world with a you-never-loved-me bang, leaving Hank to reassess his race cards by love-shacking with Lawrence’s diva widow, Leticia (Halle Berry).
Mercilessly, that is only the tip of this stultifying cinematic nightmare. Lawrence waits to die as parted curtains reveal frigid death-pen gawkers, Forster’s framing emphasizing their heartless stares while his cutaways heighten the nervous Leticia’s remove from her husband (she’s back home getting juiced). Forster’s compositions marvel at Lawrence’s cigarette smoke and the window-blinds-as-prison-bars that portend little Tyrell’s (Coronji Calhoun) own death sentence. This hamfisted poetic style does not accommodate the nuance of Tim Robbins’s Dead Man Watking, drumming up a bathetic form of sympathy for the story’s cookie-cutter oppressed. Lawrence goes into the night, Leticia drinks, and Tyrell turns chocolate bars into his substitute for daddy. All of this pans out in the poor side of town (away from the Musgrove frying squad), which is separated from the rich part by a bridge that is only one of many metaphors that clutter this dubiously childlike vision of the world.
Leticia has issues, stealing an umbrella on a rainy day and beating Tyrell for being chunky, and soon—almost as if she’s being punished—she’s worrying about more than just Lawrence’s demise and a looming eviction. Hank grapples with his own familial loss with a grain of salt, but he too stands to benefit from an emotional overhaul, and once his taste for chocolate ice cream and coffee has been offensively acknowledged (he takes both black!), it’s only a matter a time before the old dog learns a few new tricks: Leticia opens her legs, he crosses racial lines and goes about befriending the local black folk, and audiences are left screaming, “No, they didn’t!” Will post-coital ice cream allow Leticia to forgive Hank when she learns of his connection to Lawrence’s death? What will Hank do when Buck finally meets his dark-skinned princess? Stay tuned!
The film seems inspired by the race-tension melodramas of yesteryear, only it ratchets up their noxiousness. Berry’s Leticia is conceived as a displaced black woman looking for a savior, accepting Hank’s gifts (sodomy, a roof, his stable white affections) without complaint. They say once you go black you never go back—and so it is that Hank’s racism is cured once he takes to the bootylicious Leticia, choosing her over family and moving Dad into an old folk’s home. (As if portending a sequel, Forster gives the codger a black man for a roommate. Snap!) Forster’s cold aesthetic somehow makes sense within prison walls, but outside it evokes a twisted show of performance art. A brutalizing succession of arch poeticism (dramatic overheads, muddied umbrellas, waiting-to-shut hospital doors), Monster’s Ball plays out as an idealist manifesto for those who think interracial shagging is all that it takes to sooth racial tensions.