LA riots explode onto Toronto screens in 'Kings'

Michel COMTE
Director Deniz Gamze Erguven at the Hollywood Reporter's 4th Annual Nominees Night at Spago on February 8, 2016 in Beverly Hills, California

Oscar-nominated filmmaker Deniz Gamze Erguven revisits the 1992 Los Angeles riots in her timely new film "Kings" as racism once again flares in America.

The film, which premiered at the Toronto film festival on Wednesday, stars Halle Berry as Millie, a hardworking single mother trying to keep her children and strays safe during the LA riots, with help from her cranky South Central neighbor Obie (Daniel Craig).

Erguven said she was inspired to make the film by the more recent 2005 riots in France.

A forceful police response to protests over the death of two teens at an electrical substation ignited the riots, which quickly spread through mostly poor immigrant suburbs of Paris.

Then interior minister Nicolas Sarkozy further inflamed tensions by referring to the rioters as "riff-raff."

"I had no intention of burning cars, but I could see what ignited their anger," Erguven said.

Its release comes amid the proliferation of racist demonstrations in the US, notably in Charlottesville, Virginia where a woman was killed after an avowed white supremacist ploughed his car into a group of anti-racism counterprotestors.

Erguven recalled also how she had been refused French citizenship a second time (before eventually becoming a French national years later), and felt disheartened and angry -- not unlike hundreds of thousands of people facing deportation from the US after President Donald Trump rescinded a program that deferred deportations of immigrants who had arrived illegally as children.

"It's the impression that the country where you have roots, that you love is rejecting you," Erguven told AFP.

"It endangers everything that you've constructed and it's a huge heartbreak."

The film opens on a 15-year-old African American girl, Latasha Harlins, shot in the back of the head by a Korean storekeeper who thought she was trying to steal orange juice, 13 days after the videotaped police beating of Rodney King in 1991.

The store clerk was convicted of manslaughter and received a $500 fine, but no jail time. The shooting has been cited as one of the causes of the LA riots.

It goes on to follow Millie trying to keep her kids on the straight and narrow, interspersed with news footage of the King beating and the trial of the four policemen charged in his assault, as well as their eventual acquittal and the fires that this fanned.

- 'Madness and heartbreak' -

The verdict provoked outrage among African Americans and triggered over six days of riots, during which 63 people were killed and more than 2,000 were injured.

"The extent of the madness and the heartbreak went so far, the rules of the world for five days were upside down," Erguven said.

Although compelling, the film touches only lightly on police relations with the African American community, while the horror and tragedy of the riots are spliced with moments of levity.

Also Obie is one of the few white men living in a part of LA inhabited by mostly African Americans, Latinos and Koreans. But this is overlooked.

Erguven said she takes a color-blind view that race is a cultural construct and not a biological reality, and explains that much of the story is told through the eyes of children.

"From the perception of the kids and their level of understanding it's very, very funny (strange) what's going on," she said.

She also comes back in the film to the family bonds depicted in her first feature "Mustang," which was nominated for best foreign language film at last year's Oscars.

But at its core, the film "Kings" is a warning.

"Every society that I know -- the US, Europe and Turkey -- they all have their amount of tragedy and base instincts," said Erguven, who lives mostly in LA now.

"It's very easy to poke the worst instincts out of people," she said, accusing Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Trump of doing just that for political gain.

"These instincts are always present, sleeping. So it's very, very important to always be vigilant, which means making films about them."

"Otherwise they can emerge and be very dangerous," she said, because "there's always a response."