Police brutality.  Racial profiling. Urban unrest.  Shock. Outrage. Riots. Looting.  Protests. Public violence. Overarching media coverage and the gamut of questions as to why.  All of those topics could be talking about the present socio-political landscape of today Instead, those details describe 1992 Los Angeles during the impending tension and resulting aftermath of the controversial acquittal of the four police officers charged with excessive force for beating Rodney King.  This time period is the setting for Kings, a new independent film from The Orchard.

LESSON #1: HOW MUCH THINGS HAVEN’T CHANGED FOR THE BETTER-- The parallels between the Rodney King era of then and the #BlackLivesMatter discord of now in our nation is disturbing and disheartening.  Films like Kings and last summer’s Detroit are reminders of the systemic issues that are larger than the catalyst incidents.  Constantly caught in the middle of these embroilments are the unknown citizens themselves living within the dangers of these communities.  

Kings is the English-language debut of Turkish-French filmmaker and Academy Award nominee Deniz Gamze Ergüven.  Her lauded 2015 Best Foreign Language Film nominee Mustang was a head-turner.  Sadly, Kings is not.  When this website reviewed Detroit, it was said that if a film could “tell serious stories to instigate hard reflection and improved new public dialogue” it would be considered an accomplishment.  Getting it wrong becomes a disservice and that is where Kings fails where it needed to succeed.  

Oscar winner Halle Berry is Millie, a single mother of eight castaway children chasing ends to meet and avoiding child services in South Central Los Angeles.  Behind all of the screaming and domestic disorder, the house television is always on, broadcasting the bad news headlines that stoked the incoming fires. The station wagon car radio is doing the same, guiding this worried and exasperated mother and her household through a constant state of jeopardy.  Aerial establishing shots of archival helicopter TV footage transition paint this Los Angeles as a place where an officer or citizen could be drawing a gun with shouted profanities at a moment’s notice around every corner for any minor catalyst, be that shoplifting or even a cross look.

Oddly placed (and wildly miscast) is Daniel Craig’s Obie.  He is a hermetic white neighbor in this predominantly black neighborhood carrying the “nutjob” label and the matching broad brush makeup kit.  He is the kind of character that inexplicably turns on a dime. In one moment, he’s raging to throw furniture off balconies and pop of shotgun rounds out windows telling people to be quiet.  In the next he’s ingratiating himself to Millie and her children over Motown music. In Kings, Obie becomes a warped white savior for Millie when the s--t hits the fan and the riots begin.  

These Los Angeles events of 1992 have become lightly-tread history worthy of solid filmmaking statements and challenging treatments that deserve and demand response and reflection.  Even when the ambiance escalates to asphyxiating strife, Kings just floats around it, rarely committing to the full gravity of the situation.  The most promising story thread in this ensemble belongs to one of Millie’s oldest children Jesse, played by virtual newcomer Lamar Johnson.  He is the lens of disenchanted youth, as a positive and virtuous emerging man pushed into the fray by a reckless girl named Nicole (Rachel Hilson of The Good Wife) that’s too much for him alongside violent trappings and choices the other boys his age are making.  Well-acted by Johnson and Hilson, Jesse’s arc is compelling, but the A-listers above him hog the spotlight.

LESSON #2: PREVENT UNDISCIPLINED CHILDREN-- Watching kids that don’t know any better take cheerful joy in throwing molotov cocktails as if they were playing with bubbles in the backyard is the wrong kind of laughable moment.  The same goes for when looting seen like it’s a chance to be famous on television. Have they learned nothing? Apparently so.

These scripted sequences are this film’s attempts at shock value and alarm.  Unchecked incongruity like that takes over. To have Kings come down to Craig and Berry trying to get out of handcuffs in their underwear just devalues the entire historical setting.  That’s not a debasing moment of rawness. That’s straight folly. Backed by attempted musical atmosphere from the normally soul-ratting composer duo of Nick Cave and Warren Ellis (The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford), the flow of this film is wildly uneven and does not work to build inspiration.

Take Kings as how a foreigner sees our plights, troubles, and history.  Ergüven has talent but comes across as tone deaf when trying for tribute out of this script that she’s been sitting on since 2011.  What should be a spike through the heart gets washed away by the time a sunny Motown cover song tries to become a palette-cleansing “everything’s fine” coda and exhale moment in the end credits.  Even as pure dramatization, Kings is an irresponsibly aimless one.

LESSON #3: COOLER HEADS FOR ALL INVOLVED-- One mantra to live by uttered in the film is “do what you want to do.”  Sure, there’s a corollary to the “the pursuit of happiness” that could be applied there, but not when “do what you want to do” is the selfish anarchy of breaking laws for wrong reasons.  Nonsensically, outside of Jesse here and there, it’s hard to see where any character, major or minor, in this film thinks about consequences before they act especially in this hotbed of violent lawlessness.  There are always better and more effective outlets than the fiery ones.