Corrections were made to this review on Oct. 30, 2003.
Actress-turned-helmer Patrice Johnson’s “Kings County” taps into a stream of raw, powerful DV imagery and edits it to a frantic pulse. A day in the life of quartet of drug-dealing teens and their boss consists of non-stop aggressive confrontations, always ending with someone shouting “Shut the fuck up!” The women practice hysteria like a religion, whipping themselves into frenzies. Pic may register as too “primitive” and disjointed for arthouse and even some fest playdates, but black-themed cutting-edge cable venues may overlook the one-note stridency of the thesping and paper-thinness of the plot.
Set in Kings County, aka Brooklyn (and including similarities to the shock-tactic didacticism of better-known Brooklynite, Spike Lee), drama opens and closes with a montage of street signs and housing project names.
Characters are very much creatures of the moment, behaving according to a survival instinct. Betrayals abound, some passing virtually unnoticed (a drug stash, dropped out a window prior to a police raid, is “lost” in a bro’s back pocket), while others are operatic in their unexpected ripple-effects.
Helmer Johnson crosscuts between high and low energy scenes happening simultaneously. Thus while Asia (Kalimi Baxter) and Peenie (Stro) are locked in a life-and-death struggle upstairs, with Peenie holding a gun to Asia’s head and Asia holding Peenie’s private part in thrall, the gang downstairs nonchalantly shoots the breeze, with Winston (Donnell Rawlings), who initially caused the fight, half-heartedly trying to get someone to go upstairs and take the gun away from Peenie.
Pic’s most delirious sequences feature Priscilla (Adriana Sevan), a crackhead Santeria priestess. Winston runs his operation out of her apartment. Priscilla twitches and screams her way into trance-like visions, crawling around the apartment splashing herself with holy water. Meanwhile, in a squad car below, a cop named Lloyd (Nurridin Brathwaite), newly assigned to his old neighborhood, debates his “toon” handle with his white partner, firmly holding out for Wile E. Coyote over the strongly suggested Porky Pig.
Overall, “Kings County” is something of a mess, but an interesting one. Johnson displays a disdain for everyday conventions of traditional storytelling. Thus at the very moment when a character with a nervous trigger finger is brandishing a gun, a voiceover will interrupt with a documented history of the firearm.
One of pic’s most disorienting tics is its tendency to cut away to kids at stray points in the drama. At first, shots of girls in a circle or innocently skipping rope, function as brief interludes. But as pic progresses, children increasingly overtake the frame as an odd Greek chorus gathered behind barriers as unidentified voices tell “what they want to be when they grow up.”
Pic’s interminable last section matches kids’ faces to those anonymous voices shyly announcing future careers in a weird documentary coda.
James Jediny’s lensing graces pic’s in-your-face immediacy with a certain nervous lucidness. Wendell Yuponce’s score, heavily sampling rap by cast-member Stro, revs up the energy level.