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It's a little throne, but 'Kings' is on it

There are many reasons a movie takes two years to come forth, then oozes out to a few regional theaters.

The actors might be unknown, too old to be marketable or playing outside their fans' narrow comfort zones.

Distributors might pass because they have no idea how to target big audiences or pigeonhole the film in a genre.

The picture might be described as "small," "quiet" or "intimate" - all euphemisms for "guaranteed not to make a splash at the box office."

Or, of course, it might stink.

Every reason but the last applies to "Kings of the Evening," which rolls out to certain Southern cities (Charlotte included) today in anticipation of a wider release.

The title refers to a weekly ceremony in an unnamed Southern town in the 1930s. Black men dress up and show their style in a contest that offers many small prizes - a $5 bill, tickets to a play - and the huge one of self-esteem. As its master of ceremonies says, "If a man can stand up to the mirror, he can stand up to life."

The inhabitants of Gracie Marigold's boarding house have a hard time standing up to that mirror on most days.

The owner (Lynn Whitfield) is about to give up her independence and join her sister farther west. Homer Hobbs (Tyson Beckford), a former thief who spent two years on a chain gang, has set down the trumpet with which he hoped to make a living.

Benny Potter (Reginald Dorsey) lives high when his dice are hot, but they're icy. Alcoholic Clarence (Glynn Turman) claims to be waiting for a relief check the government never sends. Though Lucy Waters (Linara Washington) has slowly accumulated $200 in hopes of opening a dress shop, a loan shark (James Russo) insists she owes him the money as part of her ex-husband's debts.

So there they are: the old (by Hollywood standards) Turman and Whitfield, the unknown Washington and Dorsey, and former male model/action actor Beckford ("Biker Boyz") demonstrating dry humor and sensitivity. All are as saleable as a Humvee when gas is $5 a gallon.

Yet the movie works. Director Andrew P. Jones, who wrote the script with Robert Page Jones, doesn't aim for huge emotional climaxes; the characters' modest dreams have modest fulfillments or (less often) modest letdowns.

The actors strike home quietly in scene after scene. The understated music and cinematography set the mood. Beckford anchors the picture almost effortlessly with his sleepy, ingratiating gentleness, and the exotic planes of his high-cheekboned face give him an air of mystery.

"Kings" also acknowledges one truth most films don't explore: A lot of Southern racial conflict before the civil rights era was about class, not skin color. Segregation let poor whites feel superior to someone; it made them less likely to realize they had more in common with equally poor blacks than with the country club set, which patronized and had contempt for both colors of the lower class.

Jones makes this point with the same ease as all the others, showing us the beginnings of solidarity among beaten-down seamstresses. Even if Hollywood didn't care to listen to him, you might.

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