Vague Visages’ I Got a Monster review contains minor spoilers for Kevin Abrams’ 2023 documentary. Check out the VV home page for more film reviews, along with cast/character summaries, streaming guides and complete soundtrack song listings.
Disgraced police officer Wayne Jenkins, the subject of the 2023 documentary I Got a Monster, used the titular phrase when informing his equally crooked buddy Donny Stepp, a Baltimore bail bondsman, that he’d discovered a stash of drugs, money or guns big enough to pique his interest during raids in the 2010s. However, the phrase could equally be applied to Jenkins’ eventual capture and incarceration after years of tireless work from a doggedly determined defense attorney named Ivan Bates. Director Kevin Abrams frames his story — a shocking and at times infuriating tale of bad cops being taken down — around the aforementioned lawyer’s stirring speech about demanding further action on both the local and national levels. I Got a Monster is about finally bringing a group of corrupt cops to justice, but it’s also about how much more work sadly still needs to be done.
The Baltimore Gun Trace Task Force scandal will be familiar to anyone who’s watched We Own This City (2022), the fictionalized HBO drama in which Jon Bernthal stars as Sergeant Jenkins. Bates is a minor figure in the series, but Abrams wisely focuses on him from the outset in his 2023 film, allowing the defense attorney to set the scene and lay out the various characters without slowing the action down. He’s an instantly intriguing man, someone who realized that something was off about Jenkins and indeed the whole system. Also heavily featured are Bates’ various clients, all of whom were victims of Jenkins and his cronies who ran riot around Baltimore planting evidence, intimidating witnesses and consistently lying on the stand during trials, at least in the rare instances when anybody fought back against them.
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The Gun Trace Task Force, which was ostensibly established to tackle rising crime rates in Baltimore, predominantly targeted Black folks, many of whom had prior arrests and were essentially sitting ducks, regardless of the fact that they hadn’t done anything wrong. The group’s actions towards them had severe consequences, as a married couple and party planners (the Walkers) were rendered unemployed for two years due to being dragged through the courts system, while another man is still homeless and has yet to recover fully from his life being torn apart. As Bates points out, the criminal justice system was built to believe the word of officers, so when a group of dirty cops (in plain clothes, no less) came together to cause trouble, they did so without reproachment, even when complaints were made against them. Really, they operated with total immunity until Bates began speaking up.
Bates is easy to root for, as he is diligent in his work and refreshingly open about how tough it was, specifically when representing a Black female cop who did the right thing but was punished more than any of her male colleagues following the violent death of a suspect in custody. As I Got a Monster unfolds, Bates tussles with his community duties, both as a Black man and a lawyer. Aside from giving Jenkins’ victims the space to tell their stories in their own words, Abrams also speaks to the co-writers of the titular book on which the documentary was based, Brandon Soderberg and Baynard Woods. The director also meets with several former cops and other employees of the Baltimore Police Department (all of whom, notably, are also people of color), the government agents who ultimately brought the case against Jenkins and, of course, Stepp, who dons an eye-catching Double D Bail Bonds shirt, complete with exactly the kind of racy logo one might imagine.
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Aside from Bates, Woods and Stepp are two of the biggest characters in I Got a Monster, and they’re more than willing to delve into the more troubling elements of the story, even when it makes them seem similarly opportunistic. Thankfully, the documentary isn’t just another exploitative true crime shocker. Interviews are shot head on, with little fuss or a manipulative score telling audiences how to feel, and there are no re-enactments save for one truly terrifying tooling-up sequence, complete with masks and machetes. Abrams received incredible access, including tons of news footage, wiretap recordings, security cam videos and even body cam footage from officers who either didn’t care that their behavior was on tape or considered themselves too above the law for it to be an issue. Beautiful drone shots of Baltimore and the surrounding area solidify just how far-reaching Jenkins’ power really was, but the most evocative footage might just be of two men riding horses through the streets on a gorgeous spring day.
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I Got a Monster is incredibly evocative, the dissonance between the harshness of Baltimore’s architecture and old school activities providing yet another layer to the devastating story. Based on the available evidence, Jenkins was a borderline sociopath who made citizens’ lives hell just because he could. Watching Bates work tirelessly to bring him down and finally get some justice for the numerous victims is incredibly moving and satisfying, and the sense of closure when the Gun Trace Task Force members are sent to prison is palpable. At the same time, the victims still haven’t received an apology from their tormentors, which confirms the fight is nowhere near over yet. I Got a Monster shines a light on how systemic abuses of power are left unchecked and often allowed to proliferate, but it’s a tough watch in many ways because it’s clear that there are plenty of similar stories happening right now that aren’t being told. With any luck, though, Bates and others of his ilk will work hard behind the scenes to bring them into the light.
I Got a Monster released theatrically in March 2023 via Greenwich Entertainment.
Joey Keogh (@JoeyLDG) is a writer from Dublin, Ireland with an unhealthy appetite for horror movies and Judge Judy. In stark contrast with every other Irish person ever, she’s straight edge. Hello to Jason Isaacs.
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Categories: 2020s, 2023 Film Reviews, Documentary, Featured
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