Rodney King

Movie review by
Barbara Shulgas..., Common Sense Media
Rodney King Movie Poster Image
Racism and police brutality described in moving monologue.
  • NR
  • 2017
  • 52 minutes

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A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this movie.

Positive Messages

Racism in the United States runs deep and is supported by an institutionally racist system that favors whites over blacks in local and national practices, educationally, legally, and socially.

Positive Role Models & Representations

Four white police officers brutally beat a black man in 1991, nearly killing him. The officers were later acquitted by a white jury. When riots broke out after the verdict, King tried to subdue the violence by way of a public statement asking everyone to "get along."  

Violence

The beating by police officers of Rodney King is described in detail -- more than 50 blows by metal baton, which led to the surgical insertion of a metal plate in his skull to keep his eye from falling into his brain. Riots broke out in Los Angeles after the four police officers who brutally beat King were acquitted of all charges by a white jury in a white neighborhood. The ensuing violence included looting, fires, and 56 deaths. King's father beat him when he was a boy.

 

Sex
Language

"F--k," "s--t," the "N" word, "ass," "faggot," "hell," "incog-negro."

Consumerism
Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

King had a long-term alcohol problem. His father was also an alcoholic. He was drunk the night he took the police on the infamous high-speed chase that preceded his beating. "Booze, weed, coke, and PCP dust" are mentioned as drugs that affected King's life, but it's suggested that racism may be the deadliest controlled substance he was subjected to.

 

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that Spike Lee's 2017 film, Rodney King, looks at the infamous near-fatal beating of King, a black man who led police on a high-speed chase through Los Angeles in 1991. The brutal police beating, caught on video, and resulting injuries are graphically described. So is the insult added a year later when an all-white jury acquitted all four white police officers responsible for the excessive attack, a fact that triggered days of violent protest in black communities in Los Angeles and led to another 56 deaths. This is a filmed version of a one-man show written and performed by Roger Guenveur Smith, which he's been touring since 2012, when King was found drowned in his swimming pool. Expect a roundup of many racially-based incidents of violence and an overview of the failures of the enforcement and judicial arms of the American legal system. Language includes "f--k," "s--t," and the "N" word. Descriptions of King's beatings and other racially motivated violent crimes are graphic. 

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What's the story?

25 years ago, a white jury in a notoriously white neighborhood near Los Angeles acquitted four white Los Angeles police officers whose brutal beating of Rodney King, a black man, was recorded on video and shown repeatedly all over the world. RODNEY KING builds to a poetic crescendo of evocative words, images, and events that signal, represent, echo, and reverberate the systemic racism that American black people are subject to every day. Director Spike Lee used ten cameras to capture a live performance of actor-writer Roger Guenveur Smith's one-man show of the same title. His monologue-rap-tone poem began as Smith's personal attempt to understand his own feelings of grief and pain when the icon of American racist victimhood, King, died drowning in his own Los Angeles swimming pool in 2012. It wasn't just that the officers had hit King more than 50 times with a metal baton and zapped him with 50,000 volts of electricity by stun gun. It wasn't that one cop had vowed to kill him. It wasn't that it took five hours of surgery to repair the damage to King's head. Smith delivers a clarifying stream of mourning, outrage, regret, disbelief, and anger as he adds the names of other victims of racially-motivated violence. He seasons it all with bits of King's biography, making the ultimate point that King's story illustrates ordinary black experience in America. Of course, not everyone gets beaten nearly to death, but Smith delineates the many repeating incidents of discrimination that are built into the American social foundation. 

Is it any good?

Smith, who performed the show live over many years across the United States and internationally, gives a breathtaking exhibition of talent and stamina. He moves in the lights like a man trapped in a tai chi routine, slowly, from the balls of his feet to his heels, turning, shifting his weight, yet always maintaining a balance that offsets the rage and anguish and frustration the piece expresses. Rodney King is not easy to watch but it may spark important conversations about the way the deck can be stacked against those who start out in life burdened with disadvantages stemming from living in poor neighborhoods, where bad schools and high drop-out rates and economic hardship combine to limit job opportunities, thus fostering illegal activities that invite contact with law enforcement. Smith opens with rage and seeming disrespect. "F--k Rodney King!" is the first sentence, a quote from the Willie D. rap song, which was a push-back against King's attempt to stop the rioting that began after the white policemen who beat him were acquitted by a white jury. "Can we all get along?" he said, asking the rioters to stop. This feels like one of the few missteps in the piece as a generation has grown up since King made that almost saintly request to stop meeting violence with violence. There's a good chance that only older viewers will know why the black community might be angry with King.

But the piece sharply underscores parallels between King's run-in with the police and similar clashes between the police and black citizens that continue to cast a shadow on race relations to this day. Smith's musings suggest a Black Lives Movement wouldn't be necessary if black lives had improved much since King's day. Smith's stories of injustice are numerous, enraging, and disheartening. A 15-year-old black girl enters a store to buy juice and ends up shot in the back of the head by the shopkeeper. The shooter is convicted by a jury that recommends stiff punishment but the judge reduces the sentence to five years of probation, a fine, and 400 hours of community service. Smith takes that moment to highlight the "400 years of community service" black people rendered in building this country as slaves. King was unquestionably an oppressed black man but, Smith seems to say, he was also just a guy who had a life, and it's also that story Smith wants to tell.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about how they would feel if people close to them were unfairly targeted by police, labeled as inferior, and assumed to be criminal. What does it mean to "pre-judge" someone else? Why might doing so be damaging and destructive? How does Rodney King address these issues?

  • Poor neighborhoods usually have poor schools, and poor schools have low graduation rates. Low levels of education usually promote poverty in a community. Do you think it's the responsibility of society to help people who are stuck in that cycle? What measures do you think could be taken to help people out of poverty? 

  • Police perform an important and difficult job. How do you think the police could be helped to defuse volatile situations peacefully? 

Movie details

For kids who love true stories

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