Director: Spike Lee
Cast: Roger Guenveur Smith
Watch Rodney King online in the UK: Netflix UK
A lot has changed in the 26 years since Rodney King was brutally lynched by police, sparking the LA riots, but really, nothing has. The assault may have prompted outrage over police brutality in the USA., and America may have had its first black president, but nothing has changed. Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Alton Sterling and countless other dead black men can attest to that.
Roger Guenveur Smith tries to understand King and the riots that made him an icon for a generation through a spoken word monologue, performed in New York and filmed by Spike Lee. It’s an incredible performance, and far more invigorating than the cliché of a ‘spoken word monologue’ may suggest. As sweat pours off him, caught in the emotion of the act, Smith buries himself within the mind of King as a kind of amanuensis. As has become terribly clear since, what happened to King could have happened to any black man, if they were unlucky enough to be in just the wrong place at just the wrong time. As Smith speaks directly to King, he addresses his own potential future and, in so doing, he undergoes a kind of catharsis, suffering onstage and channelling King’s trauma – as much as one can channel 56 savage blows in words.
By excluding any archive or interview, Rodney King is still about the man himself, but it’s also about how we understand and process the horror of his beating, and what it means for society. It’s not a documentary, it’s not a performance, it’s a state of mind. It’s one man channelling the paranoia and fear and heartbreak and furious injustice of an entire race, except just because you’re paranoid, don’t mean they’re not after you.
King’s attack is a symbol of the silent brutality the African-American community has experienced for decades, vocalised explicitly on the candid video footage recorded by George Holliday. If Smith’s performance is powered by righteous anger, it’s also a lament and a memorial for every man, woman and child who has lost their life under similar circumstances since. That number is not small.
Smith’s voice is even, but his rage is barely suppressed as he talks about King and Reginald Denny and Fidel Lopez and Latasha Harlins and all the victims of the riots. Harlins was shot in the back after a minor argument in a convenience store. She was 15 years old. Her murderer was given 5 years’ probation, a $400 fine and 400 hours community service. The upheld verdict one week before the riots has been cited as another major cause of them.
The monologue belongs to Smith, but he’s supported by terrific direction from Lee. The editing bounces the camera around the stage, ignoring things such as the 180-degree rule to capture the madness and panic of those nights. Jump cuts and split-screen turn a simple monologue into a sensory assault. Close-ups of Smith’s maniac, wide-eyed grin echo Dreyer’s transcendent style in The Passion of Joan of Arc. Cloaked in blackness, the audience are never seen or heard, but it feels not like an act of isolation but one of communion.
One of the joys of cinema is that there are so many ways to tell a story. Choosing that approach is not easy, especially with a tale as powerful, traumatic and relevant as this. Smith and Lee have reimagined this event from an ingenious angle, giving it renewed life and meaning, and creating one of the year’s must-see documentaries.
Rodney King is available on Netflix UK, as part of an £8.99 monthly subscription.