Movies like “Kings” are among the most poorly conceived projects of the indie film world. The routine story of a large foster family living in South Central Los Angeles is weak even when taken at face value, but set it against the backdrop of the 1992 Rodney King riots and it feels far more exploitative and distasteful than sincere. It begs the question if the goal of making this film was rooted in pious good intentions or more of a burning desire to earn film festival acclaim. My money’s on the latter.
Halle Berry is Millie, a charitable woman with a big heart who takes in needy foster children. With half a dozen charges living under her small roof, she attracts the ire of next door neighbor Obie (Daniel Craig), a burly guy who sure does love to drink and yell a lot. The characters are so underdeveloped that this is the extent of their onscreen personalities. As the Rodney King trial consumes Los Angeles, racial tensions are on the rise. Soon the acquittal of the group of white police officers who beat King sparks a series of destructive riots that rapidly spread across the city.
Instead of seizing the opportunity to tell a compelling story about how these African-Americans attempt to deal with the stresses of racism at the mercy of authority figures, they’re mostly ignored in favor of an unfocused, undisciplined, melodramatic mess. Instead of giving audiences something meaningful and eerily timely to reflect upon, the film is plagued with incoherence and a shocking lack of poignancy. There’s a lot of screaming and bloody violence, but the film fails to capture the real anger of a city divided.
The overacting gets turned up to an 11 as the film goes on, with repetitive scenes of Berry grabbing her head while bursting into tears and Craig continuing to yell a lot. There’s a subplot about the younger kids joining in with the looters (that’s tastelessly played for laughs) and Millie’s older teen son Jesse (Lamar Johnson) getting caught up in a deadly love triangle. None of these plot points help things, especially when paired with the increasingly disheveled storytelling structure.
The tone of the film is all over the place, bouncing around willy-nilly from serious drama to emotional romance to family sitcom to laid back comedy. The low points come in the form of an extremely uncomfortable (and out of place) sexy dream sequence and a parking lot escape scene where Obie and Millie are handcuffed to a light pole that’s just plain…strange. Inopportune attempts at jokes are awkward. The movie is disturbing, but in all the wrong ways.