Film Review: Kings

This star-driven drama keeps conflict relentlessly burning to convey the mood of a neighborhood ready to explode.
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Strange and evocative, but not really satisfying, writer-director Deniz Gamze Ergüven’s tense drama Kings is noisy for such a small-scale picture—cacophonous, in fact. At least half the dialogue is yelled, shouted or bellowed out windows. The air of conflict can feel overpowering, yet there’s purpose to the noise for this film set in Los Angeles during the tempestuous spring of 1991, after the Rodney King beating and the shooting of Latasha Harlins by store owner Soon Ja Du had set all of South Central L.A. to simmer in sorrow and rage.

Kings keeps focus on the rising pressure that would explode throughout the city on the day the four LAPD officers responsible for King’s beating were exonerated. Ergüven appears intent to put a human face on the ensuing chaos and violence of the L.A. riots. Of course, there already are many real-life faces and names associated with those events: Harlins, King, the four officers who beat him, police chief Daryl Gates, truck driver Reginald Denny, who was yanked from his rig and attacked in the street. Theirs and others’ stories are incisively explored in filmmaker John Ridley’s 2017 documentary Let It Fall: 1982-1992, a kaleidoscopic portrait of a city in pain.

Ergüven—following up her Oscar-nominated, Turkish-language first feature Mustang—employs actual photos and news footage, as well as a dramatic recreation of the Harlins shooting, to set the mood for a narrative that inserts a host of fictional faces into the midst of those historic events. But harried cake-baker Millie Dunbar (Halle Berry) and shouty loner Obie Hardison (Daniel Craig), wary neighbors in a working-class hood, aren’t living so much in the midst as on the margins of history.

She’s a foster mom raising eight kids, and generally willing to open her doors to more if there’s a need her home can fulfill. He’s “the only white guy in the neighborhood,” prone to appearing in his window to scream at Millie’s kids to knock off the noise. And they are noisy. Millie pours on lots of love as a parent but little discipline, and can barely control her sprawling, brawling family. She relies greatly on her eldest, Jesse (Lamar Johnson), to keep peace in the house. Still, there’s precious little peace outside, where gangs, dealers, cops, guns and violence lurk around every corner.

It’s an L.A. submerged by a tsunami of tension. Abetted by David Chizallet’s brooding cinematography, the film renders the period in admirably spare fashion, via a well-placed song or two and the suggestions of hairdos and fashions. Every TV is tuned to the trial of the LAPD officers as the film builds to the cataclysmic events of April 29, 1992, one of the most infamous dates in U.S. history.

But Ergüven, by maintaining conflict at such a raging high pitch throughout, leaves her story nowhere to go leading up to the riots. Long before the not-guilty verdicts send angry looters into the streets, nearly every scene prior triggers and escalates arguments, conflict, discord, between Millie and Obie, Millie and the cops, Millie and the kids, Millie and a guy who steals her toilet.

While the film develops a compelling relationship between pensive Jesse and his classmate crush, Nicole (Rachel Hilson), who either has run away from or been kicked out of her parents’ home, Kings does little to characterize the friendship that develops between Millie and Obie. Neither character registers much of an inner life or motivation. Who is this belligerent Englishman, what does he do and why does he choose to live in a South Central apartment where he seems unhappy and doesn’t get along with almost all his neighbors? Craig can make individual emotional beats work in the moment, but the script doesn’t connect the dots.

A miscalculated Millie-Obie sex dream sequence—rendered in surprisingly unsexy fashion, given the participants—doesn’t help clarify their meaning, to each other or within this story. Further, the editing throughout, which emphasizes hostility more than suspense, bounces around from Millie to Jesse to Nicole to the trial without finding a comfortable rhythm for integrating the disparate plotlines.

Oscar-winner Berry brings light to Millie’s fierce determination but can’t illuminate where this character’s been, or why she’d risk her family’s safety and security by practically hoarding stray children. She is a mother figure in a symbolic sense, but not always credible in a practical sense as someone who’s managed this disorderly household for however many years. By the time the riots do finally break out and the chaos spills over into Millie’s and Obie’s world, the film has fulfilled its mission to depict the pot boiling over, but without adding insight or fresh perspective. That’s a job better left to Let It Fall.

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