Review: The King of North Sudan | Austin Film Festival 2021

Score: B

Director: Danny Abel

Running Time: 95 Minutes

Rated: NR

The King of North Sudan belongs in that subset of stranger-than-fiction documentaries, like Finders Keepers or The Queen of Versailles. The real-life Southerners have outsized personalities and crazy stories. It would be easy to mock them if the directors didn't humanize their hubristic protagonists.

You might remember the genesis of this story, which was shared as a feel-good human interest piece back in 2014. Virginia dad Jeremiah Heaton staked a strip of disputed territory between Egypt and Sudan. He "established" the Kingdom of North Sudan, thereby making his daughter a princess. It went viral, and Disney even bought the rights to make the story into a movie. And if Heaton had ended it there, it would have just been a historical footnote. But he saw dollar signs. When the movie never came to fruition, he started looking for ways to legitimize his country, setting off a crazy chain of events involving shady foreign investors, back-channel negotiations and even the White House.

While the documentary does have some flab, it needs to be feature-length because of the film's crazy twists and turns. When his hope for agri-business and science research goes nowhere, Heaton puts some feelers out with ex-military guys, in hopes the armed forces could use the land as a base. But it all goes belly up when his connection to the Trump administration gets into legal trouble. That's right, his inside track was Michael Flynn, who resigned 22 days into his tenure as National Security Advisor. But the film only gets stranger from there, as Heaton seeks out foreign investors. His trip to China includes lots of wining and dining, but results in no major investments. That leads him to shady partners just to try to get something off the ground.

Meanwhile, his home life suffers, as his wife is left to be the sole breadwinner, while managing grad school and raising their two kids. Heaton even becomes a trucker, which brings in some needed income, but still keeps him away from home. Scenes like this nail the thesis that drive and ambition mean next to nothing if you don't have money. (A monologue to this effect is a little redundant.)

Heaton is charming, but it's not surprising legitimate money guys don't take him seriously. Fair or not, he doesn't have the look or presence to be commanding $100 million investments. He also can't stop putting his foot in his mouth, especially when he's criticized about his venture. It's absolutely fair and relevant to wonder why a white man should be able to lay claim to a continent that's been pillaged for centuries, but all he can do is claim he "doesn't see race." It's cringe-worthy moments like this that make it easy to see why Danny McBride and his pals are listed as executive producers.

The King of North Sudan is a wild story that covers all sorts of international intrigue, while still keeping the focus on one man's crazy dream.


About Kip Mooney

Kip Mooney
Like many film critics born during and after the 1980s, my hero is Roger Ebert. The man was already the best critic in the nation when he won the Pulitzer in 1975, but his indomitable spirit during and after his recent battle with cancer keeps me coming back to read not only his reviews but his insightful commentary on the everyday. But enough about a guy you know a lot about. I knew I was going to be a film critic—some would say a snob—in middle school, when I had to voraciously defend my position that The Royal Tenenbaums was only a million times better than Adam Sandler’s remake of Mr. Deeds. From then on, I would seek out Wes Anderson’s films and avoid Sandler’s like the plague. Still, I like to think of myself as a populist, and I’ll be just as likely to see the next superhero movie as the next Sundance sensation. The thing I most deplore in a movie is laziness. I’d much rather see movies with big ambitions try and fail than movies with no ambitions succeed at simply existing. I’m also a big advocate of fun-bad movies like The Room and most of Nicolas Cage’s work. In the past, I’ve written for The Dallas Morning News and the North Texas Daily, which I edited for a semester. I also contributed to Dallas-based Pegasus News, which in the circle of life, is now part of The Dallas Morning News, where I got my big break in 2007. Eventually, I’d love to write and talk about film full-time, but until that’s a viable career option, I work as an auditor for Wells Fargo. I hope to one day meet my hero, go to the Toronto International Film Festival, and compete on Jeopardy. Until then, I’m excited to share my love of film with you.