kings review

Deniz Gamze Ergüven’s Kings is the latest, but almost assuredly not the last, cinematic response to the increased visibility and amplified intensity surrounding conversations on police brutality towards black Americans. The Turkish director claims to have been working on the project for over a decade since she attended film school in the United States, and it’s highly likely that a significant factor in getting the film greenlit (and attracting the talent it did) came from the continued prevalence of racially biased policing in the news. If we’re due for a rash of these woke-minded dramas, though, they need to have a firmer, more strident voice than what Ergüven displays here.

The writer/director casts her gaze back a quarter-century to the Los Angeles riots of 1992 following the acquittal of the police officers who beat Rodney King. She’s correct to observe from the outset that the situation was so tense that it resembled a volcano, a comparison she makes by quite literally superimposing faded footage of lava over aerial footage of the City of Angels. It’s heavy-handed, sure, but at least Ergüven is saying something here. The rest of Kings is a muddled mess of narrative threads and half-considered ideas, intimations of intriguing stories that she never gives the chance to develop.

The film’s emotional core is Halle Berry’s matriarchal Millie, a compassionate woman who uses her South Central home as a shelter to foster children. Her magnanimity is moving, and it stands out in a hostile environment where every racial group seems ready to pounce on the other. The home is controlled chaos of the highest degree, and just as in her directorial debut Mustang, Ergüven is at her best when orchestrating these boisterous groups of youngsters.

But beyond Millie’s goodness, Ergüven seems sure of little else, including who and what her movie is about. Kings never really engages with the L.A. Riots beyond showing some archival footage of the Rodney King trial on the television. She holds up the entire tragic situation as an example of miscarried justice, yet she never takes the next step to probe the impunity of police or examine structural racism as Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal did in Detroit.

The purpose of rehashing black pain should amount to more than just serving as a dramatic backdrop for Millie to consummate her sexual fantasies for her dreamy neighbor, Daniel Craig’s surly Obie. Yes, it’s nice that Ergüven gives her a rich interior sensuality and refuses to reduce her to a sexless maternal caregiver. But why it necessary to have their sexual tension reach its boiling point during an unfolding crisis?

Ditto the misadventures of one of Millie’s oldest wards, Jesse (Lamar Johnson), whose romantic rivalry over a recent school dropout takes an unfortunate and dangerous turn on the same night. When an ambulance can’t reach them through the melee, the reality sinks in that their neighborhood has essentially devolved into a war zone. But then what?

There’s just too much going on for Kings to be a 90-minute feature. Ergüven could narrow her scope to a single strand for an interesting short or take the time necessary to fully flesh out each character’s journey. But even in a different form, she would still need to add some more insight into the mechanisms of control and intimidation used by the LAPD to occupy minority communities. As is, Kings feels like the work of an artist who wants desperately to make a topical work but is operating far beyond her depth in depicting an epochal moment in American race relations. The film’s worst sin is not that it’s a middling movie. It’s that it adds nothing to an urgent and ongoing dialogue.

/Film rating: 5 out of 10

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Marshall's work has been featured on FSR, LWL, Bright Wall/Dark Room, Christian Science Monitor, Vague Visages & Movie Mezzanine. He keeps going through it because he needs the eggs.