The last thing the world needs right now is another star-studded movie about the race riots that scarred 20th Century America. Okay, that’s not entirely true — past trauma can be an indispensable lens through which to see present tragedies, and we sure have plenty of both — but anyone who suffered through this summer’s “Detroit” would certainly be forgiven for thinking otherwise. The halos of celebrity and commercialism tend to obfuscate the potential value of exhuming such terrible events, and that blockage is only compounded by the insistent whiteness that always makes it possible. These films may be made with the best of intentions (and the most humanistic of ideals), but something is invariably lost in translation.
Consider the differences between Justin Chon’s “Gook,” which came out late this summer, and Deniz Gamze Ergüven’s “Kings,” which is slated for release this fall. Both films are about the L.A. Riots, and both films are especially attuned to how Soon Ja Du’s murder of 15-year-old Latasha Harlins reverberated through the city’s black and Korean communities. But one of them is a call to action, the other is an invitation for reflection. One of them is about fighting to be heard, and the other is about fighting less in general. One of them boasts few familiar faces (and no white ones), the other co-stars Halle Berry and Daniel Craig. “Gook” is never shy about its purpose; “Kings” may not even have one.
Still fresh off the international success of her hauntingly beautiful 2015 debut, it’s hard to say why Turkish director Ergüven would choose this as the subject of her second feature. Nevertheless, the best moments of “Kings” course with the unbridled energy and gauzy heartache that made “Mustang” such a potent story of desecrated sisterhood. The setting may be very different, but the focus on confined sibling dynamics remains the same.
Beginning with a chintzy dramatization of Harlins’ death before confronting viewers with the actual footage of the Rodney King beating (for an 82-minute movie, an inordinate amount of time is devoted to old television clips), “Kings” eventually hones in on a Los Angeles woman named Millie (Berry), who takes in at-risk youths the way other people might foster stray cats. It’s hard to count all the kids who live in her lower-middle-class house, but an early shot of a white toddler and a black toddler sharing the same bedroom makes it clear that Millie’s place isn’t just meant to be a refuge from the violence outside, but an eden where everyone can live in harmony. Millie isn’t around very often — she probably has to hold down a lot of jobs to feed all 384 children — but the depth of her concern for these vulnerable youths is epitomized in a powerful moment when one of her babies is forcibly, and dangerously, returned to his birth father.
Her teenage adoptees present a different set of problems. Jesse (Lamar Johnson) is the oldest of them all, and also the most responsible, but the private turbulence of puberty is almost as disruptive as the public anxieties of neighborhood violence. There’s a girl — even at the end of the world, there’s always a girl. Her name is Nicole (the compulsively watchable Rachel Hilson), and she’s as loud as she is little. Watching her flip off her school principal from the other side of a chainlink fence, or embarrass the local gangbanger who whispers statutory rape fantasies into her ear, and it’s easy to appreciate Jesse’s affections. Ergüven eventually suffocates these characters with a series of tiresome incidents, but they’re fascinating to watch during the first hour of the film, when she shoots them with an expectant dreaminess that cleaves much closer to Charles Burnett than Kathryn Bigelow. Nick Cave and Warren Ellis pretty much repurpose their score from “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford,” but the music certainly adds to the feeling of finding love in a hopeless place.
Meanwhile, back at the ranch, the film introduces another major character while we wait for the King verdict to come out. Obie (Craig) is an alcoholic writer who lives by his lonesome in the house next to Millie’s. He likes to leave the curtains open, walk around naked, and fire a shotgun into the air whenever the outside world rubs him the wrong way. The only white man in the movie without a badge, he’s little more than a specter for much of the movie; preemptive fears that “Kings” would center on a white character prove to be largely, but not entirely, unfounded. Still, you don’t cast James Bond in a film this small and expect him to stay on the sidelines, and it’s only a matter of time before he emerges from the shadows and comes to the rescue.
The first troubling signs of his influence come during a sex dream that Millie has one night, which appears to be inspired less by physical desire than her need for emotional support (and some practical help around the house). The scene is rather silly unto itself, in large part because Ergüven has done nothing to prepare us for it, but its made that much sillier by the fact that Millie only remembers it after one of her youngest kids playfully smacks her on the ass. And then the riots start, and things really go off the rails.
Even throughout the smoke-filled violence that dominates the film’s bungled final act, Ergüven continues to excel at capturing the little moments of life that give shape to a tragedy. As Jesse and Nicole race across town in search of a hospital, hopelessly lost in a labored plot that peels them away from the reality of their situation, “Kings” makes time for a few brief asides that manage to put a finger on the pulse of a riot and capture the humanity of the people who are spreading its fires. One particularly memorable bit finds a black Burger King employee desperately reasoning with the kids who want to burn down the restaurant where he works, the man insisting that they’d be screwing themselves out of Whoppers for the foreseeable future. They decide to redirect their rage.
If only the rest of the riot footage were as specific, and didn’t — wait for it — build to a truly cringe-worthy action sequence in which Millie and Obie are handcuffed together around a streetlight. There’s no drama to it, there’s no sense of context, only the feeling of a wayward storyteller who’s trying to retroactively manufacture unity from the ashes of an episode that affirmed how far away from it we were. Berry screams for her kids, Craig displays a bedraggled English swagger, and we’re left to wonder what movie it is that we’re even watching anymore.
Eschewing poeticism for an empty sense of prefab empathy, “Kings” is so determined to be hopeful that it forgets to be honest. Ergüven vividly illustrates an open wound, only to dress it with a used bandaid. Told without weight or patience (and presumably diced to ribbons in the editing room), the film wants to bring us together, but it pleads for solidarity with all the focus and feeling of someone who thinks that systemic racism can be wished away if we all just have our hearts in the right place. Here we are, 25 years later, and innocent bodies are still bleeding out onto the streets.
“Kings” premiered at the 2017 Toronto International Film Festival. The Orchard will release it later this year.