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TIFF Review: Kings -“It feels as if too much was taken out”

Though the film Kings has been in production obviously much longer, perhaps in the wake of the recent happenings in Charlottesville its release has never been more relevant. With racial tensions at a resounding high, this film also explores a time when they were pushed over the edge to violent actions. However, while the thoughts and messaging of this film are well intended, its execution falls far short.

In the opening scenes of Kings, a young girl enters a convenience store to buy orange juice. Believing, for no good reason, that she is not intending to pay for it the shopkeeper and her get into an altercation and the young girl is shot and killed. A horrific scene that played true in real life for this is the story of 15-year-old Latasha Harlins.  The shopkeeper, convicted of voluntary manslaughter, was fined $500 and sentenced to probation and 400 hours of community service. No jail time. The trial was presided over by a white judge. Tensions escalated exponentially straight through until riots begin after the beating of Rodney King in 1991 (one of the ‘Kings’ the title refers to – the other is Martin Luther King Jr.) and the acquittal of the officers involved. It’s the seven weeks leading up to the Los Angeles riots that serve as the setting for this story.

Kings introduces us to Millie (Halle Berry), a woman running a foster home in South Central LA.  There are many children in her home, and the eldest Jesse (Lamar Johnson) helps to take care of her charges while she struggles to make ends meet and put food on the table.  Jesse is a responsible, capable young man, teaching the younger children to be better than their situation has provided. Living next door is their curmudgeonly neighbour Obie (Daniel Craig) who as best as we can tell may be a writer or at least a recluse. He certainly isn’t happy about the noise of the children playing, or happy about anything really. But when the first shots are fired and riots begin he and Millie work together to keep the children safe amongst the violence.

Director Deniz Game Erguven had a lot to live up to after her 2015 film, Mustang, earned her admiration and acclaim.  Unfortunately, her English language debut is often frustrating to watch.  Kings has important and sensitive ideas of racism to portray but the film doesn’t ever really hit the mark cinematically.  Its tone is completely uneven, with moments of humour that don’t make a lot of sense, and even a random (and I do mean completely random) sex scene that seemed to exist simply because Berry and Craig were in the film.  None of these things belong in a film with this subject material and it leaves the whole project feeling it’s without focus.  It also feels completely unfinished, having an abrupt ending that is without emotional or narrative closure.

There are some things the film does well.  The opening scene that depicts the horrific murder of Latasha Harlins is shocking.  Had this set the tone for the rest of the film you would have a much bigger and more profound piece of cinema. It’s a part of the story that deserved so much to be told and was a portion of the film that resonated the most.  Berry, Craig and the supporting cast of youngsters are fine in their performances, their characters just get kind of lost as the narrative does.

If Kings was trying to portray a family story amongst the violence of the riots, it failed, with no real definitive story arc.  At just under 90 minutes it feels as if too much was taken out like we are missing parts of the story on the editing room floor.  All hope that Erguven’s second feature would be as special as her first seems to be lost, unless she has hidden a second version of the film somewhere that seems more cohesive.  Kings is a misstep, wasting all its potential and star power.  Instead of being a voice much needed it is relegated to becoming one scarcely heard.

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