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25 years ago, four LAPD officers were acquitted in a state court for beating King, sparking three days of rioting that left 53 people dead. Now, around the anniversary, this Spike Lee-produced one-man show (Roger Guenver Smith) will be streaming on Netflix. A complex, semi-tragic figure, King drowned in 2012. His life was rarely smooth, or simple – its telling makes for a sober, moving watch.
“Rodney King” is a film of provocations, starting with its opening lines, delivered by writer and star Roger Guenveur Smith: “Fuck Rodney King in his ass.” Those aren’t Smith’s words. He’s quoting rapper Willie D’s song from his album “Goin’ Out Like Soldier,” an expression of radical opposition to state violence that sanctions violence itself. Smith continues to quote D’s rap, which excoriates King for forgiving the police officers who beat him in 1991, sparking a trial that ended in an exoneration that led to the Los Angeles riots a little over a year later.
What follows is a multiplicity of voices, alternately taking King’s side and excoriating him, adopting simple points-of-view and then complicating them. “Wow, brother man, no wonder you never go out of the house without your bulletproof vest,” Smith says, slipping into his main role as the narrator of this play and addressing King. “Because not only do the white supremacists want to assassinate you, there’s at least one Afrocentric homophobic rapper who wants a piece of you, too.”
Smith takes us through King’s adult life, including his two-year prison stint (in a cell block with Ike Turner, strangely) and his post-beating experience as a celebrity who never wanted to be famous, at least not for that. Most of the time Smith is the omniscient narrator, but occasionally he’ll slip into King’s psyche, or into the head of another character, such as a hypothetical black conservative who goes on the Internet to warn against canonizing King when figures like Clarence Thomas and Condoleezza Rice are available.
This brief film, practically a featurette, is directed by Spike Lee. Lee has worked with Smith on multiple films, including “Do the Right Thing” and “A Huey P. Newton Story,” likewise based on one of Smith’s one-man shows. Like most of Lee’s work over the years adapting stage dramas or capturing live musical or comedy performances (“The Original Kings of Comedy” is the most famous), “Rodney King” is unobtrusively directed, in contrast to Lee’s self-generated dramatic features, which use the camera in an active, expressionistic, at times flamboyant way. This is Smith’s show, and it’s all about the writing here, with Smith serving more as a town crier, an information delivery device in human form.