“Trying to say they should die ‘cause they weren’t strong enough to live? Nah.”
These are words of wisdom from Keith London, the main subject of the documentary Pigeon Kings. In the opening scene, we see London helping a chick break out of its shell. Hatching isn’t always easy, he observes, but one’s inability to do so without help shouldn’t condemn them to death. Even in those early moments, it’s clear that London is talking about much more than a baby bird stuck in its shell. But you only learn just how right he is as you continue to watch.
When you think of South Central, Los Angeles, there are likely certain images that come to mind. But tucked away in the mean streets of “the hood” are a group of Black and Hispanic men with an unusual hobby: They raise and train roller pigeons for competition. Pigeon Kings pulls back the curtain on this seemingly absurd subject matter in a way you’re likely not going to expect.
These men are well known members of their community, regular fixtures around the neighborhood. But on this particular day, they’re outside with more than just the intent of hanging out. Today, there’s a competition and it’s clear that nerves are running high. Of course they are — even the most professional pigeons can be unpredictable. (That’s a sentence I never expected to write.) On this day, the smack talk is a little less jovial. These men are here to win.
Listening to the men shit talk each other as their pigeons freefall through the sky (roller pigeons are called such because of a rolling trick they do in midair) feels familiar to me. It reminds me of the neighborhood in Brooklyn where I grew up. At the same time, this is nothing like anything I’ve seen before. During the first 20-ish minutes of Pigeon Kings, you’re thinking it’s going to be a much different story. I was expecting something like Tiger King, full of meme worthy moments and wacky characters. But there is a lot more heart in these men than in Joe Exotic or Carole Baskin. There is an emotional depth to this documentary that pulls you in and keeps you watching.
Keith London is the driving force of Pigeon Kings. As the premier roller pigeon fancier, he is basically like Don Corleone. At any given moment, you’re expecting one of the other fanciers (what pigeon enthusiasts call themselves) to kiss his non-existent ring. And the idol worship is for good reason — he’s simply the best. At one point, he opens a small shed door to reveal all of the trophies he’s won. His wins are varied and numerous, which you wouldn’t imagine possible given the fact that they’re for such a seemingly obscure sport. But as you see throughout the film, London has godlike status throughout his community.
As we find out in the documentary, the sport has a long and storied history in the neighborhood. London himself has always been aware of pigeon rolling, but has made it his life’s passion in the last 15 years. Like most other men in South Central, he’s not had the easiest life, and he explicitly states how raising his pigeons saves (and complicates) it. We learn the father of three is in the midst of a divorce and taking a year off from competing. His absence from competition isn’t an absence from the community, as he uses his vast knowledge and passion to keep the sport alive.
Roller pigeons are really a sight to behold. As one of the men in the film explains, it’s like “synchronized swimming” but they’re pigeons. The group, called a “kit,” has to learn to fly together, with several pigeons doing the drop and roll in unison if they want points. And fear not, these aren’t just pigeons off the street. We see the men in Pigeon Kings very meticulously breeding their best birds to create the most effective kits.
Choo Choo is an up and coming fancier who reveres Keith and his position in the community. Understanding that success will continue to elude him unless he ups his game, he seeks London out. It is clear that Keith is eager to share his knowledge, and while he may see Choo Choo as a threat, he never treats him that way. Their relationship is like when the more seasoned member of a team agrees to mentor the newbie. London understands that this relationship only improves his status.
Mentorship is an unspoken reality of the Black community. It’s really beautiful to see that being highlighted in Pigeon Kings, when it could have easily been glossed over. And while it’s not saccharine sweet, the moments where the two men talk are incredibly tender. They know they’re fighting against a system that doesn’t want to see their success in anything. And if they want something of their own, they have to make it. That’s what they’re doing with their competitions. Keith knows the sense of peace breeding and training his birds gives him. He wants to give Choo Choo that same sense of peace.
Pigeon Kings is about the competition of roller pigeons, but it’s also about so much more than that. These men, who have been downtrodden by the realities of a broken system, find community through such an unlikely source. And their passion for what they do can be all consuming, but it gives them a larger sense of purpose. The love and care they put into their birds allows them the space to put those same feelings into the other facets of their lives. Choo Choo can give a young boy a couple of birds to breed because Keith takes him under his wing. Keith’s love for his birds is mirrored in the way he tells his youngest daughter to stand up for herself. My major takeaway from the film is if you pour love into something, it can soar instead of just fly.
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