Important subject matter doesn’t guarantee a film will be great, or even mediocre. For all its best efforts, Kings fails to put the 1992 Los Angeles riots into focus. The story it tells is seen in part through the eyes of Millie Dunbar (Halle Berry), who heads a foster family of children from her South Los Angeles neighborhood whose parents were hauled off to jail during this turbulent period in the city’s history. Millie handles the responsibilities of being a surrogate parent cheerfully, but as the city’s mood becomes tenser her nerves fray and her ability to maintain order in her household begins to weaken under the stress.
Four L.A. police officers charged with beating Rodney King are on trial and the city awaits the verdict. It’s the 10,000-pound weight dangling overhead, waiting to come crashing down. And down it did come. All were found not guilty of criminal charges, although in separate trials there would later be convictions for civil rights violations. The not-guilty verdicts, however, launched an immediate frenzy of riots, looting and burning in retribution. But it was also an opportunity to get free stuff from the nearby strip mall.
“…her nerves fray and her ability to maintain order in her household begins to weaken…”
Millie’s foster family includes two teens, Jesse (Lamar Johnson) and William (Kaalan Walker). As a wave of violence and destruction sweeps through the neighborhood, Jesse does his best to resist the undertow that pulls young men his age toward crime. William is not so circumspect, however, and he joins in the looting to round up junk food for him and his younger foster siblings.
Jesse meets Nicole (Rachel Hilson), a street-smart teen, as she’s being thrown out of school. She’s a piece of work, sassing the principal even as the cops are being called to have her removed from the sidewalk outside the school. For Jesse, it’s love at first sight. But his yearning for the bad girl will prove to be an unfortunate turning of events for this mild-mannered youth.
On top of the family tribulations that Millie and her brood face, Obie (Daniel Craig), the drunken, boisterous and seemingly psychotic neighbor is thrown into the mix. For Craig, an actor of some renown, there’s surprising little meat to this role. Obie’s only function in the story is to provide a love interest for Millie. Weirdly, the film tries to morph into a somewhat screwball romantic comedy toward the end. It doesn’t fit with much of the earlier parts of the film, but curiously it’s one of the few instances when the movie begins to cohere into something substantial. Director Deniz Gamze Ergüven proves unable to coax performances of any depth from the players, and for all of the dramatic action taking place, the film feels ponderous. Maybe the director was striving for the chaotic energy and tragic circumstances of a film like Larry Clark’s Kids, which portrayed New York youths caught in a downward spiral of drugs, sex, and violence. Obviously, creating a coherent story that takes place before a backdrop of chaos is more difficult than it seems, and here it never quite jells.
“…creating a coherent story that takes place before a backdrop of chaos is more difficult than it seems…”
Newsreel footage of the riots, and radio and TV news bulletins interspersed throughout the film are meant to provide context and to give the story a structure, but that framework only occasionally connects with the family drama at the center of the film.
Kings takes on many issues, including police brutality, children falling prey to violence and crime, injustice for inner-city residents and the rampant lawlessness that results from it, an ineffective educational system and misguided child protective services, among others. Probably any one of them would have provided enough material for this 90-minute drama.
Aside from the tacked-on love interest, the film introduces near the end, we’re left with a feeling of a society that’s lost its balance and is lurching madly out of control. The forced hopeful ending does little to allay that concern.
Kings (2018) Written and directed by Deniz Gamze Ergüven. Starring Halle Berry, Daniel Craig, Lamar Johnson, Kaalan Walker, and Rachel Hilson.
4 out of 10