Well-meaning, well made and all but allergic to subtlety.
Well-meaning, well made and all but allergic to subtlety, “Kings of the Evening” is an inspirational period piece in the most classic of molds, aiming an amber-hued lens at the travails of men in a Depression-era flophouse as they participate in an all-male fashion show. Well received at a number of black film festivals, Andrew P. Jones’ pic is far too on-the-nose with its morals and subtexts, and contains some head-scratching narrative developments later on, but should do respectable business in limited release nonetheless.
Opening, like so many films set in the era, on a Southern chain gang, pic introduces Homer (Tyson Beckford) as he reaches the end of his two-year sentence for stealing tires. Returning home to find his mother evicted from her old house, and with nowhere else to go, Homer is soon hooked in by Benny (Reginald T. Dorsey), a genial hustler who steers him toward a local boarding house for a finder’s fee.
Run by no-nonsense proprietor Grace (Lynn Whitfield, still a bit too young and pretty to be limning the grizzled matriarch role), the homestead provides a warm, familial atmosphere, despite its many roaches, and Homer quickly falls in with Benny and lovable hobo Clarence (Glynn Turman, the cast standout), and sets his eyes on spitfire seamstress Lucy (Linara Washington). These peripheral characters are appealingly acted, and the scenes in which this motley group tries to forge some improvised version of domesticity are the best in the film.
In what is nominally the film’s primary plotline, the men gather at the community center once a week for a fashion show put on by local immigrant patriarch Gamba (Steven Williams), based, he claims, on the South African tradition of oswenka. Competing for such prizes as a loaf of bread and a chicken, the area menfolk strut across the stage in their finest duds, with the winner crowned “King of the Evening” for the rest of the week.
“A man can look like a million, even if he doesn’t have a dime,” Gamba intones at the start of the show, and the contest comes to take on a far more than financial appeal for the powerless townsfolk. But though it’s an excellent soundbite, it doesn’t actually make much sense: Swank clothes were then, as they are now, prohibitively expensive, and those without dimes are swiftly laughed off the stage. When Grace initially dismisses the show as a waste of time by men who would better be off looking for work, one is inclined to agree.
In truth, the fashion show itself occupies relatively little of the pic’s screentime; the residents’ struggles to get by and still maintain their dignity constitute the larger, more interesting portions of the film. However, this is not the Great Depression of “They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?” and for every sinister debt collector and heartless boss the film throws in the way, there are twice as many kind-hearted strangers willing to offer a helping hand, or even, on one bizarre occasion, a little pro bono assassination work.
The latter incident nearly derails the film, as these characters have been effectively developed as decent people in trying circumstances. The climactic fashion show sees things improve substantially, but the characters feel compromised.
As for the thesping, star Beckford is decent enough though lacking in the grit necessary to portray a hardscrabble ex-con, and Washington is capable and self-possessed. But the supporting cast (which also includes Lou Myers and an underutilized Charles Quiett) is the primary attraction. Technical contributions are clean and professional.