In her first English-language feature, French-based Turkish director Deniz Gamze Erguven, whose debut, Mustang, scored an Oscar nomination last year, deserves credit for revisiting an incendiary chapter in modern American racial conflict at a time of renewed unrest. But for all its honorable intentions to address sensitive issues that still sting, Kings is an unconvincing tonal patchwork. The movie dilutes its powder-keg depiction of the 1992 Los Angeles riots by crafting a central character for Halle Berry that’s a glamorous candidate for sainthood — not to mention trapping her in a lame rom-com struggling to break free of its dramatic confines. All that will make this a tricky prospect for U.S. distributor The Orchard.
Mustang Halle and co-star Daniel Craig share the past connection of both having emerged like dripping sex deities from the ocean in different James Bond films. Here, they play The Two Most Gorgeous People in South Central Los Angeles.
Equal parts sobering and silly.
Millie (Berry) is a foster mother singlehandedly raising eight at-risk kids of various ages and ethnicities. She has fabulous hair laced with divine blonde tendrils, #flawless no-makeup makeup (because she’s worth it) and a rockin‘ swimsuit bod seen in an inflatable backyard pool. She’s always busy, baking and delivering cakes all over the neighborhood, but even at her most exhausted, Millie looks spectacular, and she’s never too tired to shower each child with love.
Her neighbor Obie (Craig) is the semi-reclusive local Boo Radley, who’s so smoking hot that when Millie finally gets a close encounter, it immediately triggers a risible erotic dream that seems to have been dropped in from another movie. Her subconscious conveniently forgets that angry, alcoholic Obie is the kind of guy who fires a shotgun in the air or tosses furniture off his balcony whenever he’s riled up by the ruckus outside.
The very movie-ish conception of these two central characters undermines the seriousness that writer-director Erguven attempts to bring to the violence that ripped through Los Angeles in the wake of the not-guilty verdict for the four white LAPD officers who brutally beat Rodney King in March 1991. The film takes its title from his name and that of Martin Luther King Jr., drawing a line through race-related violence across the decades.
Kings opens with a recreation of the killing of 15-year-old Latasha Harlins, shot by South Korean convenience store owner Soon Ja Du after she tried to steal a bottle of orange juice. Harlins‘ death came just days after videotape of the King beating had sent shockwaves around the world, and the virtual acquittal of Du contributed significantly to simmering racial tensions. Archival news updates on the trial of the cops in the King case punctuate the film, along with grainy aerial footage of South Central that’s like a woozy nightmare of a war zone about to ignite.
While the violence is building, Millie is forced to give up one of her foster kids when his biological parent is released from prison, and her pain at the wrenching detachment shows how deeply she cares. Still hurting from that separation, she witnesses cops hassling local teenager William (Kaalan “KR” Walker), whose mother has just been put away, and Millie steps in to claim responsibility for him before the police know what’s happening. The eldest of her charges, Jesse (Lamar Johnson), is a responsible teenager who helps out with the younger kids. But the arrival into the household of William brings a more questionable influence, teaching the juniors how to shoplift.
Friction surfaces between Jesse and William over Nicole (Rachel Hilson), a tough-talking wild child who antagonizes her high school principal, local business owners and a sexually predatory gangbanger with equal ferocity and fearlessness. The three of them end up on a desperate odyssey seeking urgent medical attention during the first of the riots’ six nights.
Like the cloistered sisters in Mustang, Millie’s brood is often captured in moments of physical abandon — that aforementioned pool dip; bouncing off the walls with excitement on Christmas morning; or a scene in which Obie steps in as babysitter and they bust out dance moves to James Brown. But as the action detonates, accompanied by a plaintive score by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis, Millie is separated from the majority of her kids, sending her on a panicked search across town, with Obie offering his help.
It’s here that Erguven’s faltering grasp of the material abandons her completely, as a brush with a cartoonishly maniacal cop leaves them handcuffed to a streetlight and awkward romantic overtures ensue. That mix of searing reality with cute quasi-comedy (the young kids seem to be out on a lark more than exposed to real danger) undoes the film’s compassionate attempt to show the challenges of keeping a family together during times of conflict.
On the performance side, Berry hits all the expected notes from beatific Madonna to feisty fighter, from emotionally starved woman to socially engaged community member, devastated by the bitter divisions of her world. If the character never seems quite believable, that’s more to do with the thinness of the writing than the acting. Likewise, Craig’s character is far too inconsistently drawn to register as real. The younger kids are adorable, even if some of their precious dialogue makes you cringe, and as the teenagers, Johnson, Walker and Hilson all make solid impressions.
There’s undeniable power in some of the riot scenes, as smoke chokes the air while bullets and firebombs fly, and Erguven does succeed in charting the progression from a lit fuse to a full-scale explosion. But there are too many missteps around that reality-based core, ultimately trivializing a painful passage in recent American history.
Production companies: CG Cinema International, Scope Pictures, France 2 Cinema, Ad Vitam, Suffragettes
Distributor: The Orchard
Cast: Halle Berry, Daniel Craig, Lamar Johnson, Kaalan “KR” Walker, Rachel Hilson
Director-screenwriter: Deniz Gamze Erguven
Producers: Charles Gillibert, Genevieve Lemal
Executive producers: Wei Han, Yee Yeo Chang, Celine Rattray, Trudie Styler, Charlotte Ubben, Olivier Gauriat
Director of photography: David Chizallet
Production designer: Celine Diano
Costume designer: Mairi Chisholm
Music: Nick Cave, Warren Ellis
Editor: Mathilde Van de Moortel
Casting: Heidi Levitt
Venue: Toronto International Film Festival (Gala Presentations)