The LA Riots burst around the principals of “Kings.” Franco-Turkish director Deniz Gamze Ergüven paints this signal event in modern American history in quick, impressionistic strokes. The camera jumps and jerks from vandalism and arson to an embattled LAPD, literally circling the wagons (sedans), trying to maintain control of his just piece of ground or that one.
The chaos is pulse-pounding and immediate, the images a combination of invented but recognizable violence with sketches of the real history mixed in around the edges. Want to know the pre-history of Black Lives Matter? It played out in South Central and on America’s TVs 26 years ago this month.
The movie she’s built around this maelstrom is melodramatic with the unmistakable stamp of reality, capturing a powder-keg of anger, resentment and racial tensions waiting to go off. “Kings” can be soppy and over-the-top, but it feels real, lived-in and self-destructively righteous — not unlike the riots themselves.
“Over-the-top” describes the anguish Oscar winner Halle Berry paints across her pained face for this film, and other recent thrillers (“Kidnap,””The Call”). Nobody does “manic” better.
She plays Millie Dunbar, a big-hearted over-committed woman who has filled her house with orphans. Millie can turn on the crazy eyes (another Berry specialty) when she needs them, intervening to save a kid she barely knows from arrest in another police “sweep” through her neighborhood, bringing him (Kalaan Walker) home to join her own and others she’s taken in — eight in all.
She scrambles through several side-hustles (baking Lemon Sprite bundt cakes) to keep home and hearth together. It’s not enough. The kids fend for themselves, too often. There’s not enough to eat in the house and any new kids under their roof dilute her nurturing influence.
Her son Jesse (Lamar Johnson, good) has taken after her, “rescuing” cute but too-streetwise Niccole (Rachel Hilson, alternately sassy and scared stiff), a veteran shoplifter in a climate where Asian (Korean mostly) store owners have taken to brandishing firearms, and have recently killed one girl over a purloined bottle of orange juice.
Where are her parents? “They told me to get killed, but it hasn’t happened yet!”
Millie may start their days with a sweet wake-up kiss, but the house is a veritable scrum of kids, shouting and playing, bickering and not doing any of it quietly, leading to endless threats of “I’m calling Child Welfare” from the last white guy on the block (Daniel Craig), her irate neighbor.
The “white noise” in the movie comes from the omnipresent television sets, endless coverage of the city’s inequities, symbolized as the Rodney King arrest and video beat-down. When that all-white jury in suburbia acquitted the ill-tempered, brutish cops who bragged about what they’d done, all hell breaks loose.
Millie hysterically dashes in and out, trying to round up her brood, with some recruited onto the streets, younger ones watching the riots as a bit of TV unreality — “Did we miss the fun?” — and wanting to wander off and see the spectacle for themselves.
It’s loopy. It’s just nuts. And yet, that happened — a lot. You probably have to experience a hand-scrawled sign blocking this boulevard or that side street in person to believe it.
“Turn left or get shot.”
It’s not as relentless or fact-based as “Detroit,” with Craig’s hardass providing lighter touches. He may hate their noise, but push comes to shove, people will bend over backwards to shelter kids, or so we want to believe. Even the Only White Guy on the Block has some James Brown LPs to keep them amused.
“Say it loud!”
“Kings” got crucified by group-think at the Toronto Film Festival, and some of the abuse is understandable. It’s chaotic, mashed together, the sketching in can feel like surface gloss. The melodrama, like Berry, is entirely too much at times. You have to hand it to her, though. She does fraught with fear with a bracing gusto.
But the sprawl of it, the seeming disorganization, all work to its advantage and betray “Kings'” ambition. Ergüven wasn’t going for documentary, she was aiming for an impressionistic “feel” — terror, outrage, helplessness, a city and a system that aren’t built for you, even when you’re hurt, even when you’re in trouble.
Especially when you’re in trouble.
MPAA Rating: R for violence, sexual content/nudity, and language throughout.
Cast: Halle Berry, Daniel Craig, Lamar Johnson, Rachel Hilson
Credits: Written and directed by Deniz Gamze Ergüven. An Orchard release.
Running time: 1:32