‘Rodney King’: TV Review

Courtesy of Netflix
A tour de force.

Spike Lee directs a filmed version of a one-man play by his frequent onscreen collaborator Roger Guenveur Smith.

Deeply moved by the June 2012 news of Rodney Glen King’s drowning at age 47, writer-actor Roger Guenveur Smith got busy researching the famous Angeleno’s life and death. Within weeks he’d written and mounted a one-man play that he’s since performed many times, in many venues. Now a riveting filmed version, directed by Spike Lee and streaming on Netflix, joins the documentaries that have hit the small screen in recent days, all of them commemorating and exploring the 25th anniversary of the Los Angeles uprising that was sparked by the verdict in King’s suit against the LAPD.

Smith’s interpretive angle on those days of violence and their aftermath, focused on King himself, is by definition narrower than the perspective of those journalistic films. But like the other filmmakers, Lee and Smith shine a damning, sorrowful light on American racism, through the shattered prism of spring 1992 in Los Angeles. With its dazzling wordplay and densely layered profusion of history and biography, Rodney King is an experience as cerebral as it is visceral. Smith’s powerfully crafted performance does nothing less than restore the humanity to a man who has, over a quarter-century, been reduced to a talking point and a symbol.

Under the unfussy helm of Lee and director of photography Daniel Patterson, with strong contributions from editor Randy Wilkins, the film comprises a potent single-take, 10-camera recording of Smith’s play. On a summer night at Lower Manhattan’s East River Park, Smith begins, barefoot on an unadorned stage, in a rectangle of cool white light representing the backyard pool where King died (the film opens with audio of the heartrending 911 call from his girlfriend). It isn’t long before Smith is visibly sweating in the New York heat.

Smith takes none of the conventional wisdom or mainstream reporting about King at face value, and he kick-starts the drama with a burst of anger — the first words he utters are “f— you,” quoting rap lyrics by rapper Willie D that label King a sellout. Eventually he’ll share some of the online vitriol against King from people, black as well as white, who refuse to see King as anything more than a criminal, or a fool.

Channeling various nameless characters, Smith delivers an intense rush of info and emotion, shifting gears and slowing down only after eight minutes, with the clanging wallop of the metal baton strikes that left King permanently damaged. He rescues from the dust pile of amnesia a number of details that have been lost in repeated tellings of the story, some of them harrowing, like the metal plate implanted behind King’s pulverized right eye socket so that the eye wouldn’t “slip back into your brain.”

To say that Smith wrote the play isn’t quite accurate; remarkably, he developed most of it through improvisation. Only the bookending sections were written in advance, mainly because they're other people's work: the words of the aforementioned Willie D and of King himself, in the statement he made to the press during the riots, oft-misquoted in watered-down sound-bite form. Some of the other new documentaries about the riots have included the “can we get along” speech in its revelatory entirety; with his actor’s artistry, Smith deepens the impact in his aching rendition.

On top of its L.A.-specific poetry — a pounding litany of freeway exits; observations of burning bougainvillea and jacaranda — Smith astutely weaves in pop-culture references, among them the jarring reminder that the final episode of the much-celebrated Cosby Show aired during the riots. Some political leaders pointed to the sitcom as a potentially unifying balm. Smith, on the other hand, searingly points to the Cliff Huxtable/Mister Rogers sweater-and-tie getup in which King was costumed by his attorneys for his appearance before the cameras, pleading for peace.

And in his agonizing reminders of the forgotten victims and good Samaritans of the riots, Smith makes painfully clear the immense responsibility weighing on King, a construction worker from L.A.’s northern suburbs (not South Central). He traces the sorry path from punching bag to emblem to punchline, a course that left no room for complexity.

Having cast Smith in eight of his narrative features, and after filming his Obie-winning play A Huey P. Newton Story in 2001, Lee is fully in sync with the performance and its up-to-the-minute resonance, showcasing it to profound effect. With the film’s final image, the director emphasizes how unsettled and raw the material’s questions remain.

At a recent Hammer Museum screening, part of the Los Angeles cultural institution’s three-night series examining the 1992 uprisings and their aftereffects, Smith said he’s taken to describing the play as “not so much a performance as a prayer.” As preserved for the screen, it’s a stirring communion with an improbable historical figure, a man who was born four months before the 1965 Watts riots.

Production companies: Luna Ray Media, Buffalo 8, 40 Acres and a Mule Filmworks
Distributor: Netflix
Cast: Roger Guenveur Smith

Director: Spike Lee
Screenwriter: Roger Guenveur Smith
Producers: Steven Adams, Bob L. Johnson, Spike Lee, Roger Guenveur Smith
Executive producers:, Ian Bricke, Matthew Helderman, Luke Taylor
Director of photography: Daniel Patterson

Editor: Randy Wilkins
Composer: Marc Anthony Thompson

53 minutes