How Daniel Craig and Halle Berry turned a riot into a farce
Set amid the racial unrest in LA, it will leave you scratching your head at what the point of it all might be
In your own country and language making a second film after an acclaimed first one is a difficult enough task, but if you’re an acclaimed foreign director whose second film takes you to the US, the task is even harder. Such is the case with Turkish director Deniz Gamze Ergüven whose debut, Mustang, won her critical acclaim and a Best Foreign Language Film Oscar nomination in 2016.For her second feature Ergüven has attempted an interconnected drama set against the 1992 riots in Los Angeles that followed the acquittal of the police accused of beating truck driver Rodney King.
Kings begins with a dramatic re-enactment of an earlier racially charged incident in 1991 when 15-year-old Latasha Harlins was shot in the back of the head by South Korean convenience store owner Soon Ja-du after an argument over a bottle of an orange juice. The incident sparked outrage and created the environment for the racial tension that would boil over the following year in the wake of the King verdict.The infamous videotape of the police beating King is shown on television as we are introduced to Millie (Halle Berry), a saintly foster mother who raises eight children of various ages in the violent and gang-ridden neighbourhood of South Central LA. Millie is aided by the eldest of the children, Jesse (Lamar Johnson), who like any 15-year-old is struggling with his own adolescent urges and desires while trying to satisfy Millie’s demands for domestic responsibility. When Millie adds the rebellious and more streetwise teen William (Kaalan “KR” Walker) to the overcrowded mix, tensions are set to rise and are not helped when Jesse brings home the sassy and self-assured wild girl Nicole (Rachel Hilson).This all takes place, as plenty of television news and radio reports remind us, against the unfolding events in the King case. Millie must also deal with the disgust and strange attraction she has for her hunky neighbour – writer and unplayable alcoholic Obie (Daniel Craig). He at first wants nothing to do with her brood and then, without enough of a believable build-up, is suddenly the object of a horribly misguided erotic dream.
Ergüven treats the story with a cinema vérité approach that places us in the moments as if we’re in a documentary – but she is unable to provide a compelling enough spine to the story to stop us scratching our heads at what the point of it all might be. By the time the separate stories of the teenagers and their foster mother intersect on the night of the riots, Ergüven is unable to hammer home any kind of cohesive overall intention and things become farcical.Berry and Craig are way too goodlooking to be believable residents of the ghetto and their performances are wooden and silly, as if they’ve stepped off a James Bond set for a few minutes to help out in a friend’s student film. While the younger actors offer something in the way of compelling portrayals, they’re let down by a script laden with clichés and an inauthenticity that Ergüven just isn’t able to hide.By the time Obie and Millie find themselves having to disentangle their handcuffed bodies from a street lamp in an awfully mistimed comic set piece, the whole thing has reached a ridiculous point from which it never manages to return. So what should have been an intriguing second film from an undoubtedly talented director feels like a messy, badly chopped up attempt at something that remains frustratingly unclear. Hopefully Kings will not be Ergüven’s last film but it definitely, in its current form, is not one that she nor us should want to remember in a hurry.