Kings imagines the L.A. riots as a tone-deaf, absurd comedy

Deniz Gamze Ergüven’s disappointing follow-up to her Oscar-nominated Mustang is based on real events, but nothing rings true


KINGS (Deniz Gamze Ergüven). 87 minutes. Opens Friday (April 27). See listing. Rating: N


When news first broke that Daniel Craig would be starring opposite Halle Berry as a man helping a family to safety during the L.A. riots, the internet immediately threw some side-eye at what looked suspiciously like a white saviour trope. That would have been the least of Kings’ problems.

Frustrating and tone-deaf, the movie remembers the L.A. riots as an absurd comedy.

Deniz Gamze Ergüven’s follow-up to her heralded, Oscar-nominated coming-of-ager Mustang (it’s fine) opens with Latasha Harlins’s brutal murder and glimpses Rodney King on television screens, but for the most part eschews the big conversation surrounding the events.

Instead Ergüven homes in on Berry’s frenzied foster parent, Millie, the children in her care, led by eldest and most responsible, Jesse (Malvern’s Lamar Johnson), and Craig’s drunken shotgun-wielding neighbour Obie during a night that has everyone splintered off into their own chaotic misadventures.

As it turns out, the white saviour thing isn’t all there. Craig’s Obie offers some help to Berry’s Millie, but he serves more as a romantic distraction – a puzzling one at that, considering his earlier temperaments and, you know, the riots.

The racial tension, violent eruption, black smoke and shattered glass are just a backdrop for Jesse’s sexual awakening or amusements like a fast-food manager comically begging kids not to burn down their favourite joint or Obie and Millie getting handcuffed together to a lamppost overnight. You might consider the horror racing through Millie’s head, not knowing whether the kids in her care are becoming casualties, but the movie doesn’t. It emphasizes the screwball.

Everything here is based on real events. Ergüven compiled details from people who had varied experiences during the riots – from wonder to tragedy. She splashes them across the screen for a rather ambitious and epic kaleidoscopic effect, but doesn’t have a handle on the individual threads and wildly competing hues.

Tragedy does eventually strike one of those kids, but it fumbles by, barely felt, overwhelmed by all the zaniness.

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