An Editing and Tonally Incoherent Blunder with Wasted Potential
Rating: R for Violence, Sexual Content/Nudity, and Language Throughout
Run Time: Ihr & 32min
* (out of ****)
We open on a scene that is all-too-sadly-familiar in today’s climate: A black, teenaged girl rummages through a refrigerator in a convenience store, removes some orange juice, puts it in her backpack, and heads toward the clerk at the counter. The clerk, thinking she is stealing the bottle of juice and either not seeing or ignoring the money in her hand, violently attempts to stop the apparent theft from happening. It turns physical, and it ends with a gunshot to the head. A girl has died, the victim of phony self-defense because of the color of her skin.
This sequence is just right, beginning with the calmness of the innocent trip to the store and spiraling wildly into the suddenness and urgency of its outcome. The sting has even more power once one realizes it is based in truth: This was the murder of Latasha Harlins, which really did occur 13 days after the videotaped beating of taxi driver Rodney King. The events combined to create an atmosphere which, within a year, would lead to the L.A. riots of 1992. That atmosphere is the backdrop of Kings, except that that is meant literally: It is almost exclusively a backdrop, until suddenly it isn’t.
The attempt here is admirable: Writer/director Deniz Gamze Ergüven has constructed a sprawling drama that tracks a family unit, led by single mother Millie (Halle Berry), for the year it takes the trial against the cops who beat King to reach its infamous verdict. Millie is a foster mother in South Central L.A., at the central hub of where the riots would later take place. The oldest children in her care, Jesse (Lamar Johnson) and William (Kalaan Rashad Walker), help to care for the younger children (played variously by Issac Ryan Brown, Callan Farris, Serenity Reign Brown, and a few others) in the household. They are a noisy lot, much to the chagrin of their next-door neighbor, an eccentric oddball named Obie (Daniel Craig).
Ergüven takes an odd, nearly disastrous approach to this material, and that is pretty clear when coming across such scenes as a strange, erotic dream had by Millie when she rather suddenly realizes her attraction to Obie, a plot element with which the film proceeds to do nothing at all in any capacity, and perhaps the most baffling sequence, which involves a jab at the trigger-happiness of certain police officers in heightened situations. In it, apparently suicidal teenager Nicole (Rachel Hilson) baits a policeman, who has (for no discernible reason) pulled his gun on a white man who doesn’t understand why this is his third detainment of the day, by intentionally stealing concessions from a convenience store and planting herself in the back of the cop car, hoping to stay somewhere warm for the night.
The scene, though, is played for comedy. This happens a lot in the film, such as when another cop handcuffs Millie and Obie to a light pole (for reasons that he explains but that are still inexplicable) and the pair must attempt to escape. The actors (with the exception of Johnson, who affords Jesse a compelling melancholy) seem lost in the weeds with this material, and later, when an unthinkable act of senseless violence occurs, leading the viewer into the credits dangling off a cliff of uncertainty, it seems even stranger in retrospect that Ergüven was unable to decide upon a solid treatment for this subject.
All the while, the trial plays out in the background, but it’s nearly halfway through the movie when anyone interacts with or reacts to the developments in any sense. When that not-guilty verdict for the clearly guilty comes back (echoed by the light punishment given to the shopkeeper in the Harlins incident), the riots begin, and the urgency had by the opening scene returns for a few moments here and there in the finale. Kings, though, has long since lost its way in an untidy haze of tonal imbalance, poor performances, haphazard editing, and the failed sense of building a community.
(Review by Joel Copling)
(Review by Chase Lee)