LL Cool J, Vivica A. Fox, Whoopi Goldberg, Loretta Devine, Jada Pinkett Smith, Anthony Anderson, Toni Braxton, Cedric the Entertainer, Darius McCrary, Tamala Jones, Masala
“Crisis, Catharsis, and Confusion.” This is the theme laid down by the rowdy Reverend Hooker (Cedric the Entertainer) as he addresses the assembled family of Bud Slocumb, deceased. The phrase also describes the basic architecture of Doug McHenry’s comedy, Kingdom Come, written by Jessie Jones and based on David Bottrell’s play, Dearly Departed (which is about a Jewish family, rather than an African American one as in the film). With a score designed to sell (with trendy hiphop and r&b, as well as pop spirituals by Kirk Franklin), the film careens between broad fart-jokiness and sometimes bizarre family melodrama it’s like Friday has crashed into Soul Food.
Ostensibly, the Slocumbs have gathered to mourn the old man, whom his wife Raynelle (Whoopi Goldberg) wants to commemorate with the words “mean and surly” on his headstone. But their coming together in West Los Angeles also means they must contend with all varieties of emotional baggage. In this time of grief and reassessment, all their longstanding resentments and aggravations come out of the closet. What the film does especially well is explore the perpetual strains and stresses of family relationships, especially with the added duress of scraping by, day to day, in an economy that shows no mercy. That Kingdom Come does all this through comedy makes the exploration both more and less painful.
Thankfully, Raynelle is not your typical matriarch: her combined wicked sense of humor and deep religious faith have enabled her to survive her bleak marriage. Moreover, she’s developed a fierce, if low-key, honesty, and is not afraid to let everyone know that she’s glad to be free of the tyrannical Daddy Bud. With her children assembled, at least in part to help her through this difficult time, Raynelle finds herself in another taxing place. As the grown-up kids start fighting with one another, revealing their own inclinations to behave like Daddy Bud, she’s feeling a little testy. She has only one child still at home with her, a daughter conceived after the other children had left home, during the only night Raynelle and her husband shared in twenty years of overtly hating one another. Tellingly, her name is Delightful (Masasa): observant and docile, Delightful smiles often but has very little to say about anything, suggesting that the hard lesson she’s learned growing up in this household is to be silent, not to make waves.
The wave-makers arrive in force. At the center of the clan is hard-working Ray Bud (LL Cool J) and his practical-headed wife Lucille (Vivica A. Fox), who are struggling, as nobly and quietly as possible, with his past drinking habits and the fact that they can’t have a child. Many people have recognized LL Cool J’s charismatic screen presence before (if you’ve missed it, see his tv series In the House, the movies Deep Blue Sea and Any Given Sunday, or any one of his music videos or live performances). Here he also displays impressive emotional range and subtlety (no surprise to anyone who has been paying attention…). Ray Bud once had aspirations but now feels defeated by his always-running-behind life, his endless efforts to get ahead and be responsible at the same time. He and Lucille are clearly supportive and understanding of one another: armed with her “nerve pills,” Lucille finds a way to get through her days, looking after her man and taking care of other people’s families, while stifling her own desire to have children.
With Lucille and Ray Bud’s history, you might imagine their distress when his irresponsible little brother Junior (Anthony Anderson) arrives, along with his outrageously self-absorbed wife Charisse (Jada Pinkett Smith, in a way over-the-top performance) and their three rowdy young sons. Junior and Ray Bud have to work out their deep-rooted conflict, which takes the form of their childhood encounters—wrestling and punching on the living room floor. Junior is a dreamer ad a schemer, and has repeatedly borrowed money from Ray Bud and lost it on get-rich-quick schemes. Ray Bud, by contrast, keeps at his slow and steady pace, but is losing faith that he’s on his way anywhere. The hysteria is compounded by Drama Queen Charisse’s constant neediness and flamboyance: she knows how to command attention, and does it repeatedly.
Add to this the turmoil the carryings-on of Ray Bud and Junior’s religiously devoted Marguerite (Loretta Devine), who is struggling to give some direction to her rebellious son Royce (Darius McCrary). Their conflict comes to a head when he announces that his ambition is to get on welfare, and is most strikingly manifested in a scene where he’s driving her to church, in his little VW. They start fighting for control of the radio: he wants hiphop and she wants gospel. The editing speeds up, the tempers heat up, and the shots come closer and closer, until the car’s interior feels like it’s about to explode.
Certainly, theirs is a generational and gendered divide, but it’s also a function of they ways they understand their cultural and political environments. with a mother who always cared for him, even smothered him, Royce is secure enough to fight back, that he has something to say and needs to be heard; Marguerite, on the other hand, came up in a house where she was treated as if she was unimportant, and she compensates in her own way—internalizing her unhappiness and trying to control and give up control of her world at the same time. Quoting the Bible allows her to feel peace, but underneath, she is boiling over with desire and disappointment.
While Kingdom Come clearly draws ideas and themes from other films—family affliction and unity, working class woes and survival strategies—it also develops an uncommonly warm and compassionate tone. McHenry (who also made Krush Groove, featuring a young LL Cool J, and Jason’s Lyric) has a deft touch with his performers, and all bring depth and generosity to their roles (even if Pinkett Smith is occasionally overwrought). If the film relies too much on the easy laughs (ladies in big church hats having outbursts), most of the time, it plays to its real strengths—small, intimate exchanges, particularly those between Ray Bud and Lillian. This is a couple with whom you can imagine spending more time.