Imagine waking up famous — or really, infamous — on the worst day of your life. Your entire person — hopes, fears, favorite colors, favorite foods — compressed into a tabloid headline: the Killer Mom. The Speeding Drunk. Celebrity is hard enough for artists and athletes who've actively tried to achieve it, and even then, fame bites back when you've chased it. But what if you haven't? If one morning you're a 39-year-old mother of two in suburban Colorado, and the next The World's Worst Parent? Or a 25-year-old night janitor who has no idea that in one year, he'll feel responsible for the 1992 Los Angeles riots: six days, 55 deaths, and a billion dollars of damage.
On Friday, Netflix premieres two experimental films about notorious ’90s crimes: Kitty Green's Casting JonBenét and Spike Lee's Rodney King. Both hover around an hour and don't so much rehash the facts as circle around them, poking their subjects to see where they flinch. What we realize is that as much as we think we know their cases — the kidnapped kindergarten beauty queen found dead in her own basement, the battered man with 11 skull fractures — we barely know the people themselves.
Rodney King's voice can't be heard in the infamous video of four police officers whomping him with batons, and he wasn't allowed to testify against them in court. Only when the cops were acquitted and the riots began did someone hand King a mic. We think we remember what he said: “Can't we all just get along?” delivered at a comic whine. That's wrong. King actually sighed, “Please, we can, we can get along here. We all can get along. We just gotta, we gotta.” He didn't beg; he believed. He was an ordinary man at the center of extraordinary violence, stuttering and nervous in a tie and cardigan that someone else made him wear. And once again, King learned that what he thought — and who he was — didn't matter. We couldn't hear him.
Which lets monologist Roger Guenveur Smith lend King his own voice in his long-running one-man show, Rodney King. Smith speaks like a beat poet who barely takes a breath. There are no periods at the end of his sentences. Like a cartoon snake, his phrases curve up and down and slowly twist around your neck. “Forty times 40 times 40 times 40,” Smith hums, channeling the malt liquor King chugged before getting behind the wheel of his car. When the sirens spot King speeding, he chants, “Blue! Blue! Blue! Blue!”
Smith isn't speaking for King, though he does take a crack at that mangled and meme-ified speech. He's speaking to him, practically preaching, interrupting his own incantations to ask, “Right, Rodney?” as though King's ghost could hear. King bought a swimming pool with his civil settlement money, and drowned in it in 2012. On the tile, he'd inscribed two dates: that of his beating and the start of the riots. Rodney King opens with his fiancée's 911 call when she discovered his body. I'd forgotten he died, just another thoughtlessly lost fact along with all the rest of them that made King a person. He loved to fish. He could ski. He surfed.
Smith's patter is hypnotic, old-school slam, a mix of rhyme — “You remember that day out in Marina del Rey” — wordplay, and pronouncement. His words overwhelm, making you feel a fraction of what it must have been like for King to have a current sweep him away. “Before you know it, Rodney King, you're the first reality-TV star,” Smith declares, and that's true. The Real World premiered the month after the riots.
When I saw Smith perform the piece live at the Bootleg Theater in Los Angeles, a helicopter cruised overhead. Sirens sped by. It was a normal night in L.A. on a street that had been smashed during the riots, with living sounds around us and new martyrs on the news. And yet the play felt like stumbling upon an ancient spell. Smith stood barefoot onstage and spit into the air to count off the officers' baton hits. Under the spotlight, his saliva looked like fireworks. The cruelty was nauseating, but what really made me cringe was an unwelcome emotion: nostalgia. Twenty-five years ago, the country rallied behind a black victim who lived. We weren't tired then. We could still be shocked. Even President George H.W. Bush condemned the attack. “What I saw made me sick,” said Bush. “There's no way in my view to explain it away.” How many leading Republicans would say the same today?
Spike Lee is a fan of Smith. He's squeezed him into his movies ever since Do the Right Thing, in which Smith played Smiley, the kid on the corner hawking photos of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King. Lee is credited as a director for filming a live performance of Rodney King on an outdoor stage in New York. But Lee mostly seems to have loaned Smith his brand name to get the monologue attention. He doesn't leave a fingerprint on the play, and didn't care about where to put the cameras. The angles make no sense; the edits are clumsy. His close-ups ankle the power of Smith's full form. Worse, when Smith mimes King's death at the end, Lee wrecks the moment by conflating a freeze frame with theatrical stillness. The pause hangs. It doesn't haunt. The only special effect that works is nature itself. Smith starts speaking at dusk, and finishes in darkness. The lights dim, too. We lose sight of the actor's bare feet, his jersey. All we see is his sweat.
Casting JonBenét, my favorite film at this year's Sundance, shows a director in full control. Young Ukrainian documentarian Kitty Green flew to Colorado to find local actors to star in a movie about their most famous unsolved murder victim, 6-year-old child pageant winner JonBenét Ramsey, found bound and bludgeoned the day after Christmas. Local is key. Few of these aspirants have acting experience, but they all consider themselves experts on the case. One wannabe, a part-time bounty hunter and sex educator hoping to play the lead cop, even offers his knowledge on erotic knots.
At first, Casting JonBenét feels like a prank. There is no movie; or rather, the auditions are the movie. The actors are lousy, eager to please, and, like the tabloids, judgmental about Patsy and John Ramsey tarting up their daughter to turn her into a star. Patsy must have been “a royal bitch of a mother,” speculates a guy in a Santa costume. (A Santa impersonator was one suspect on the 1,600-person list topped by the Ramseys themselves and their 9-year-old son, Burke.) Yet these hypocritical men and women and stage parents are selling themselves, and their children, to Green. She opens on a shot of eight would-be JonBenéts in polka dots and ponytails scrambling for a seat.
Green played the same trick at home with her fantastic short The Face of Ukraine: Casting Oksana Baiul. She backlit Ukraine's national pride in their Olympic gold medal figure skater, whose sobs of joy united her country against poverty and Russia chipping away at its strength. Here, too, she's burrowing for a deeper truth. The media thought Patsy and John acted suspiciously. But how do loving parents act? Her actors can't agree. When Green has her Patsys call 911, some cry, some panic, some stay calm, some scream.
At the core of Casting JonBenét is the ultimate actor's question: What's my motivation? Why would Patsy and John have murdered their beloved daughter? They cling to the common theories that Patsy was jealous, or that JonBenét was a bed wetter, until one actress breaks. “If someone said that my impending 40th birthday caused me so much psychic strain that I would consider killing my child, I don't know what shade of ballistic I would go on them,” she growls. “Talk about putting women in a box.”
Slowly, empathy creeps in as the actors go method. They reveal their own traumas: bipolar mothers, dead brothers, dead girlfriends, dead children. One woman confesses that her father whacked her in the head with an ax. Pain is universal. Most people just get to keep theirs secret, instead of splashed onto newspapers and, well, Netflix.
Seventy minutes into Casting JonBenét, Green finally allows her adults onto her set of the Ramseys' home. They crowd into the hallway and bedrooms all at once — nine Patsys, seven Johns — and collectively reimagine the family's last private night. She shows us more life than a headline can contain. Green pans across this painful tableaux and it hits us: Her cast has become better actors, or at least better humans. And so have we.