A fragmented telling that wastes its potential and cast.
Kings is now available to own on Digital and comes to home video July 31.
Set in South Central LA circa 1992, Kings story centers on a foster parent named Millie (Halle Berry) and her desire to mother eight children. This is a daunting task given her current economic status – assuming she gets some form of government assistance, her only other means of income involves selling baked goods from the back of her car. Making sure the bills are paid is the least of Millie’s worries though. There’s also the threat of someone calling CPS whenever she leaves the kids alone/with her oldest son Jesse (Lamar Johnson) or when their rambunctious behavior spills out into the alley by their house. The struggle is real.
Making life that much more interesting is LA’s elevated racial tension, prompted by the Rodney King beating. Because it was the first time this sort of thing was caught on tape, the media coverage was extensive. So much so, that many people hoped the constant bombardment of news centering on the footage would lead to a guilty verdict. Tragically, days after this incident, came the death of fifteen-year-old Latasha Harlins. This African American teen was shot in the back of the head after a confrontation with a South Korean convenience store owner named Soon Ja Du. Du was eventually found guilty of voluntary manslaughter thanks to surveillance footage showing Harlins attempting to walk away before being shot. Sadly, the judge refused to give her any jail time, opting instead for a fine, five years of probation and some community service. This decision leads to strife amongst Latasha and Du’s respective communities; an issue that would erupt into all out-violence moments after a jury acquits the officers in the Rodney King trial.
Kings had an interesting premise. An atypical family struggling to make it during a tumultuous time in South Central. The major backdrop being these historic events that eventually led to the ’92 Los Angeles riots. One would be forgiven for thinking that writer and director Deniz Gamze Ergüven was looking to deliver a gripping drama with a solid message. Considering how you can’t go a week nowadays without someone recording outright racist behavior and/or police officers doing questionable things – something that’s echoed in both Latasha Harlins and Rodney King’s cases – Ergüven’s film does come at an opportune time. If Kings’ premise wasn’t some grand design that uniquely spoke to these issues, at the very least it would provide some thought-provoking segments concerning life back then. Unfortunately, to my dismay, Kings offers nothing of the sort.
The chief problem comes from the film’s balancing act. Part of the it deals with Millie and how she manages her chaotic life. We see her baking cakes, arguing with her perpetually irate neighbor about her kids and giving clothes to the less fortunate. Millie is basically a mother to just about everyone she meets. The other part centers on Jesse and his friends William and Nicole (Kaalan Walker and Rachel Hilson, respectively). The three of them are rebellious to a fault, though Jesse often acts as the voice of reason. While the drama perpetuated by the teens and Millie’s demanding life are supposed to be intertwined, Ergüven treats them like separate stories. Instead of consolidating the branching threads into a cohesive plot, she unevenly shifts the film’s focus between characters. Worse still is how and when some of these transitions occur. At times they can feel jarring, often robbing an important moment of its impact with a sudden change in scenery.
This is especially true when it comes to the Rodney King case. The trial is always playing on a TV or overheard as a form of narration; Ergüven isn’t subtle about making sure the audience is aware of what’s going on. And yet, the main cast is somewhat indifferent to the proceedings. The teens will provide a comment or two about finally getting justice before the film transitions over to Millie doing something completely different. None of the characters are given the time to realistically process what’s going on within their city for much of the film. The same can be said of the audience. We aren’t given a moment of pause either, making it difficult to care when one of the main characters gets hurt or Millie’s random love interest – the reason I haven’t mentioned Danial Craig’s character (Obie) before now is because his arc is an unrealized part of the story that literally materializes out of thin air in the later half of the film.
At its best, the random nature of the film ruins a potentially sound narrative and wastes the solid performances from much of the cast. At its worst, it makes Kings feel pretentious. Almost as if Ergüven wanted to use politically charged events to tell a story but didn’t know how to depict them with any sense of depth. That or she wanted to cover a plethora of topics and couldn’t get them all to congeal. Whatever the case, the film suffers as no singular point or theme is ever fully explored. There’s nothing here that alludes to a meaningful observation of history or some ideal concerning race that’s worth mulling over in today’s climate. It doesn’t even provide a decent look at the trials associated with foster care, the justice system or any of the numerous hot button issues that were touched upon, which as a person of color, is rather disheartening!