Released on the 25th anniversary year of of the L.A. Riots, Deniz Gamze Ergüven’s Kings explores the dynamics of this turbulent time in US history. Ergüven, born in Turkey but raised in France, was deeply affected by the 2005 French Riots. In an interview at the 2017 Toronto International Film Festival where Kings had its world premiere, Ergüven said that as a Turkish woman in France she could relate to the feelings of being an outsider, a minority. In 2005 she could sense that “a big societal issue was coming to the surface.” This began her fascination with riots and the desire to make a film about them. Her research led her to the L.A. Riots of the early 1990s. Ergüven began working on a script for what was supposed to be her feature film debut. Finished in 2011, she wasn’t able to get it financed. A friend suggested she make another film in the interim which led Ergüven to make Mustang, released in 2015. That film served as a platform to get Ergüven’s script attention and funding. 11 years in the making, Kings was finally born.
Kings follows the story of Millie Dunbar (Halle Berry), a single woman and foster mom who takes the impossible task of raising eight children on her own. The oldest, Jesse (Lamar Johnson), is quiet and observant. He tries to make sense of the racial tensions in his neighborhood and develops an attraction to his fiesty and outspoken classmate Nicole (Rachel Hilson). When Millie brings home an abandoned teen, William (Kaalan Rashad Walker), the family dynamic shifts as William lashes out at authority and introduces the younger kids to shoplifting. He also develops a romance with Nicole that both angers and confuses Jesse. The family’s next door neighbor, Obie (Daniel Craig), is an eccentric writer who lives in relative seclusion. Obie and Millie frequently butt heads. When the Rodney King trail verdict angers the neighborhood setting off a riot, Obie, Millie and her family are embroiled in a fight for their lives.
Ergüven stays true to the era by weaving archival footage of news coverage throughout the film. There is a reenactment of the Latasha Harlins murder as well of footage of Soon Ja Du’s trial and eventual release. There is also plenty of footage of the Rodney King beatings and his trial. These are the two inciting incidents that set off the riots. The film really captures the paranoia, the tension and the desperation of a very volatile time. We sense the anger of the African-American community, the paranoia of the police force and the confusion of the young ones who are not capable of understanding where they fit in all of this. Something Ergüven does really well is she includes moments in which the characters experience joy. I was particularly taken with one scene in three of Millie’s foster kids are joined by other kids with the intent of burning down the local Burger King. An employee comes out and begs them to reconsider. Other employees come out and bring free milkshakes and fries for the kids to enjoy. Instead of burning down the establishment, the kids instead go elsewhere and throw their fire sticks over a bridge. This is not something a lot of movies do. Finding even a single moment of happiness during time of turmoil is the only thing that can keep us sane and help us move forward.
Where Kings excels in capturing the unrest of a particular time in history, it fails in character development. I didn’t get to know Millie, Obie or any of the other characters. The romance between Millie and Obie felt a bit forced to me. Two people who hate each other yet come together during a difficult time is a storyline that could work but doesn’t here. There was also a bizarre sex/dream sequence that felt out of place, unnecessary and briefly took me out of the movie. I wanted to know why Millie had all these foster kids and why Obie was so eccentric. And I wanted to know more about the trio of teenagers William, Nicole and Jesse. The actors all delivered fine performances but they couldn’t overcome what was lacking in the story. It felt like the riots overshadowed any potential this film had to be a good character study.
Kings is available on DVD, Blu-Ray and digital download and will release on demand 7/31.