Nothing seems so bad after watching Deniz Gamze Ergüven’s Kings, except for Deniz Gamze Ergüven’s Kings. Sans Ergüven’s involvement, Kings would be merely a bad idea, something we could gawp at perplexed before moving on with our lives. If you haven’t seen her last film, Mustang, by far one of 2015’s best, then maybe you’ll be able to do that, but the divide separating her debut from her follow-up is a canyon’s width. How does a filmmaker go from a lauded debut to a sophomore feature this disastrous?
Maybe there’s an inside baseball reason behind Kings’ creative failure, or maybe now’s a good time to remember that Ergüven wrote it before she made Mustang. If the latter, she still made the decision to move ahead with it after the fact, and it’s still awful. Where Mustang stays on a naturalist wavelength from beginning to end, Kings constantly swaps tones and aesthetics, caroming from biopic, to romantic drama, to melodrama, to teen coming-of-age drama, to thriller, to documentary. The movie refuses to settle on one mien and stick with it. It’s genre salad, and every ingredient is wilted at a moment in America where Kings’ historical makeup remains fresh.
The film takes place against the backdrop of the Rodney King trial and the riots responding to the acquittals of the police officers who assaulted him, though it begins in 1991 with the death of Latasha Harlins. It’s a bluntly orchestrated moment of violence that segues into an image of her pooling blood superimposed over molten lava bursting from the earth: Ergüven isn’t aiming for subtlety here. Obvious or not, the shot’s sledgehammer impact is as effectively jarring as its aftermath is brief. The film moves rather quickly from Harlins’ death to the everyday struggles of Millie (Halle Berry), a single foster mother looking after eight children, working her butt off to provide for them, shelter them and love them, each task equally difficult in light of her personal circumstances and Los Angeles’s social temperature.
Ergüven settles her focus on Millie’s story in 1992, unfolding over the panorama of King’s ordeal and judicial neglect. The problem is that Kings doesn’t make a decision about whether it wants to explore life in South Central at a boiling point for racial tensions or the escalating effect gross legal injustice can have on those tensions. At a glance, they sound like they’re one and the same, and perhaps a more fluid version of Kings would dramatize how each shapes the other. But Ergüven’s narrative is disjointed enough that Millie’s day to day feels rooted in another movie divorced from the explosive unrest released by the trial’s verdict. When the rioting begins, she practically gets caught in its undertow by accident, and only braves the threat of violence to recover her kids when they go to participate in the disorder themselves.
Millie has support from her oldest adoptee, Jesse (Lamar Johnson), the de facto man of the house, stepping in to help with the other kids when Millie is short handed (which she always is). Jesse has his own worries: William (Kaalan Walker), the teen son of one of Millie’s friends, teaches Jesse’s foster siblings in the ways of petty theft while stealing the heart of Nicole (Rachel Hilson), Jesse’s crush, creating a love triangle element in a movie that doesn’t need one. As the King trial progresses and discontent foments, Kings paints itself as a tale of Black American life under duress from state sanctioned racism and its consequences, but the film lacks weight. None of its horrors are treated with the same gravity with which Mustang treats cultural patriarchy.
At times, the film feels downright silly, mostly the product of Millie’s interactions with her neighbor, Obie (Daniel Craig), the film’s only significant white character. He’s an alcoholic writer with accent slippage issues (you can’t tell if Craig is aiming for the American south or for Cheshire) and a temper that sets him at odds with his neighbors. Over time he takes a liking to her kids, babysitting them and leading them in a singalong to “Say It Loud — I’m Black and I’m Proud.” Eventually he becomes Millie’s knight in shining armor and the object of her sex dreams. Advance fears that Ergüven intended on using Craig as a white savior are allayed by the movie, but his presence here doesn’t make a ton of sense regardless, and besides that, he’s goofy as hell. If Kings wasn’t incoherent enough, Obie adds to the confusion, mostly because Ergüven doesn’t have a clear arc in mind for his character.
This makes the movie’s title a puzzle. Kings implies kinship between its Black cast and the man whose immeasurable suffering serves as its bedrock: They could be closely related if events aligned and put them in a position to have their humanity stripped of them by the American justice system. Obie is no King, though. He has the freedom to rage and toss furniture over his balcony and cuss out anyone who gives him cause. Maybe Ergüven means for Obie to strike a contrast between white entitlement and Black disenfranchisement, but like everything else in the movie, he’s there to be there, with no thought afforded to his greater purpose. That’s in keeping with Kings’s aimlessness. A film like this should feel relevant to today by way of Stephon Clark, Starbucks and Black Lives Matter. Instead its relevance is couched in a misapprehension of history.
Director: Deniz Gamze Ergüven
Writer: Deniz Gamze Ergüven
Starring: Halle Berry, Daniel Craig, Lamar Johnson, Kaalen Walker, Rachel Hilson
Release Date: April 27, 2018
Boston-based culture writer Andy Crump has been writing about film and television online since 2009, and has been contributing to Paste since 2013. He also writes words for The Playlist,WBUR’s The ARTery, Slant Magazine, The Hollywood Reporter, Polygon, Thrillist, The Week, and Vulture, and is a member of the Online Film Critics Society and the Boston Online Film Critics Association. You can follow him on Twitter and find his collected writing at his personal blog. He is composed of roughly 65% craft beer.