First, the good news: Kings, the baffling-sounding romantic drama you may have read about, starring Halle Berry and Daniel Craig against the setting of the 1992 L.A. riots, is not the white-savior narrative that many of us feared it might be.
It is, however, inexplicable. I attended the world premiere of Kings at the Toronto International Film Festival last night. And in the realm of Very Bad Ideas that you’d think someone would stop before getting to the point of making an entire movie, and releasing it, Daniel Craig as the only white guy in South Central, who helps Halle Berry’s harried foster mom go on a madcap journey to chase down her many, many kids, during a famous violent uprising sparked by the acquittal of four white LAPD officers caught on videotape beating a black taxi driver, this one has more red flags than China. I’ll let my colleague David Edelstein weigh in on the nuances of the filmmaking and confine myself to the subject matter and casting — about which my very subtle critique is, What the fuck were you thinking? Any of you? It’s like sitting through a feature-length version of Kendall Jenner’s Pepsi commercial.
I don’t doubt that Turkish-French director Deniz Gamze Ergüven, making her English-language debut after her Oscar-nominated “coming-of-age nightmare,” Mustang, went into this with the best of intentions. During the film’s introduction, she said she’d been trying to make Kings for 11 years, ever since graduating film school, and spent a month in L.A. doing research for the script, which she also wrote. (The title stands for two Americans who made us rethink race relations: Martin Luther King Jr. and Rodney King.) The movie opens with the devastating death of Latasha Harlins, the 15-year-old African-American girl who was shot in the head by a Korean shopkeeper named Soon Ja Du, who went on to receive no jail time, just 13 days after the Rodney King beating. It was a tide-turning tragedy that’s also heavily referenced in this year’s other, way more affecting L.A. riots movie, Gook, from director Justin Chon.
Then, enter Daniel Craig?
He doesn’t have a huge part, nor does Berry (if you’re like me and were hoping this would be her next Monster’s Ball, go hope somewhere else). The real stars are the many young actors giving great performances. I hope they all get discovered and go on to have amazing careers, and I hate ragging on a film that is giving so many young people of color a chance to be seen. But it doesn’t matter how little screen time Craig has if every time he pops up, the only thing you can do is wonder why in the world he’s in this movie.
The question isn’t “why did Daniel Craig sign up for this?” — though that is a head-scratcher — but “why is this character’s entire plotline in this movie?” Craig plays Obie, a random British guy living in the ’hood — you know, as British guys do. What is Obie’s job? Why is he in this neighborhood, in the same apartment complex as Berry’s Millie? It’s never explained. The first time we see him, he’s screaming out his window at Millie to get her kids under control. The second time, he’s butt-naked in his window, and Millie is screaming at him. “Fool, everyone can see you, put that shit away!” But there’s a hint that she kind of likes it.
Again, I repeat, what the fuck? We see Craig’s Obie break up a fight between Millie’s kids and a Korean shopkeeper on his way to get beer. He always needs beer. He talks about it a lot. And we see him go into an apoplectic fit and throw a couch and a metal cabinet off his second-story cabinet, as the Millie’s kids cheer him on like watching a football match. I think he did it to make a barricade to keep hooligans out? Or maybe he was pissed off at the police? Who knows? And then later on, when Millie locks three of her kids outside for a minute to teach them a lesson about coming in for dinner, that same couch-hurling maniac invites the bunch of preteens into his home for some TV watching, dinner, and a dance party. He’s everyone’s fun British uncle in the ’hood! Meanwhile Millie is running around in hysterics because she can’t find her kids and everyone in town is, like, bombing police cars or getting shot.
Honestly, Berry’s presence only makes slightly more sense than Craig’s. It feels as though Ergüven wanted to make a movie about the riots told from the perspective of kids (I would watch that!), and then a studio exec was like, “But wouldn’t it be so much better if we threw in two movie stars and an interracial rom-com?” And then took away all her money and refused to let her make the movie until she complied.
It’s after that babysitting-out-of-nowhere that the Daniel Craig Factor goes completely off the rails. There he is, clad only in boxer briefs, swimming downward through a black void toward Berry’s foot, artfully lit. He slides forward across her naked body and they nuzzle as he lies on top of her. “Millie,” he tells her, helpfully. “This is just a dream.”
The next time he shows up in her real life, he’s breaking her out of handcuffs (won’t be the only time!), being the rock who calms her down, and having a One Man and Two Babies moment at her house, trying to figure out diapers while Millie goes off in search of her missing kids. Then he’s driving her to a big-box store her kids are cheerfully looting, where he and Millie get cutely handcuffed by police to the same lamppost. Dying and mayhem are happening everywhere else, and here these two are, making eyes across a big metal pole. Obie has an idea for escape. “You can keep your panties on, but I’m going to need your pants,” he tells her, and you’d think she’d faint from the flush. He also calls her “baby.” I DON’T KNOW HOW THIS RELATIONSHIP BEGAN.
I should add that the audience at the premiere seemed totally fine with all of this. In the end, Craig’s being there isn’t as bad as it could’ve been: Obie doesn’t so much save Millie as help a woman who’s pretty capable of saving herself. Craig is charming and fun to look at, and Obie generally seems to think Millie and her kids are great. But the fact that this director (and, I’m sure, her producers, and her distributors at The Orchard, who won what was reportedly a heated bidding war) found it necessary to insert a rom-com with a famous, British white guy in the middle of an L.A. riots movie points to an insidious disconnect from the material. (I saw something in the credits that made me think it may have been a way to insure that this movie could play in Asian markets, and if so, what a waste. Go see Gook instead.) Mostly, it just begs the question of: Why? Why did you think your other stories weren’t important enough to tell without him?