It’s the 1920’s and the Great Depression has hit the heartland of America like a sledgehammer. I remember as a kid asking my grandmother about life during the depression and she informed me, being that she was Black as the majority of the characters in director Andrew P. Jones winsome period piece ‘Kings of the Evening’ are Black, that everybody she knew was already economically depressed so it was just another set of days for her. That’s what my granny told me. But that’s not the story here as the Depression has taken its toll as the men and women of this city look for a way to find some joy, peace and comfort amidst this terrible situation.
Our story centers around the character of Homer Hobbs (Tyson Beckford) who has just been released from two years of chain gang duty and is out looking for his mother. Unfortunately he can’t find her but she did leave behind some belongings at her known last residence, including his father’s beloved trumpet. The next order of business for Homer is to find a place to stay and hopefully luck out and get a job. This is where he meets slick hustler Benny Potter (Reginald T. Dorsey) who finds Homer a nice place to stay at Miss Gracie’s flop house.
Miss Gracie (Lynn Whitfield) is a very nice woman who feeds her tenants, keeps the place clean and only has the bare minimum of cockroaches running around. Also staying at her house, in addition to Benny the hustler, is Clarence (Glynn Turman) who is still waiting for his government check to arrive and the absolutely lovely Lucy (Linara Washington) who works down at the local sweat shop for the mean, evil, racist penny pinching Mr. Cheedle (Bruce McGill), and those are his good points.
But about this ‘King of the Evening’ business. Once a week the resplendent Mr. Gamba (Steven Williams) hosts an event at the local community hall were the finest gentlemen wear the finest clothes and strut their stuff to win glorious prizes and gain respect. Five dollars here, a can of peaches there… and considering that room and board at Miss Gracie’s is 25 cents a week, five dollars would’ve taken you pretty far so being crowned King of the Evening is kind of a big deal.
Meanwhile Lucy is dealing with her own set of problems in that trouble, in the form one Mr. Ramsey (James Russo), has followed her to this town from St. Louis claiming he owes her some money and Mr. Ramsey aims to get his money. Homer is a little sweet on Lucy but Lucy seems to be interested in fancy ‘King of the Evening’ styled gentlemen prompting Homer to do what he can to become one of these men. Clarence, who is probably the pure definition of what we would call ‘a loser’ today, would also like to be a King but Clarence would rather sit around and feel sorry for himself rather than do what he needs to do to regain his self respect. And so it goes.
We were watching this movie with the family, because it is family friendly, there’s a scene where the character Gracie was attempting to show the character of Clarence how to strut. That was kind of funny. It was funny to me mainly because I saw ‘J.D.’s Revenge’ and I know full well that Glynn Turman knows how to ‘strut’. Off camera Mr. Turman was probably the resident strut coach. I guess that’s why it’s called acting.
Anyway, one of the best things about ‘Kings of the Evening’, something that could also be leveled as this films major drawback, would be how simple this movie is. Director Andrew P. Jones, working off of a script co-written along with the director by his father Robert Page Jones, has opened a small window to this often forgotten time and allows us to look in and absorb this rich slice of life. On one hand it’s superficial. How much depth can there be in watching a bunch of grown men play dress up? But when you take into account the reasons behind their primping and preening and what it meant to these men internally just to be a part of this competition at this down time in history, not to mention what it meant to the spectators in the audience, the superficial aura slowly gets etched away.
Certainly the strength of ‘Kings of the Evening’ isn’t in the story it has to tell as the story is, at best, rudimentary, but instead it’s the strength of the characters that populate this rudimentary story where the movie gets its power. It goes without saying that these colorful characters would have to be in the care of some mighty talented actors if they are to come to life and these actors took the sparse characters they were working with and turned them into three dimensional human beings that we felt true empathy for, particularly Linara Washington and the emotional depth that she was able give to the character of Lucy. We’re also including the male supermodel in this as well. Give Tyson Beckford credit where credit is due, not only for his subtle performance but for his part in bringing this movie to light as co-executive producer.
It took a couple of years for ‘Kings of the Evening’ to find distribution… we don’t know why this could be outside of the fact that Will Smith isn’t in it, and it also looks like somebody raided my granddad’s closet, but these transgression aside ‘Kings of the Evening’ is a special film that can be enjoyed, at least on some level, by just about everybody.