Writer-director Philippe Lacôte’s second feature film Night of the Kings is set amidst a remote and dense Ivory Coast forest.
When a new inmate arrives at La MACA prison shackled in the back of an open-top police van and to a welcome reminiscent of feeding time at a zoo, from the go, all the familiar prison-drama tropes are present. The baying crowds of hardened prisoners jeering the arrival of fresh meat, the jaded prison warden, and the ever-present terror of violence. But minutes into its opening, Night of the Kings takes off into a different territory.
La Maca is a different world, one with its own codes and laws. This is the only prison in the world ruled by the inmates, and its first law is that the Dangôro or top dog must take his own life if he falls ill or can no longer control the prison population. The present Dangôro, Blackbeard (Steve Tientcheu) is ailing. He patrols the prison’s communal living spaces with an oxygen tank trailing behind him while snapping at his heels the warring usurpers Lass (Konaté) and Half-Mad (Digbeu), vie to take over his position.
Blackbeard sees the new arrival as an opportunity to sure-up his position if only for a few days until he can plan his escape. So he invokes one of the prison’s traditional laws. With the appearance of a red moon, the Dangôro can appoint a storyteller, a ‘Roman’ who must enthrall and entertain the prison population. Blackbeard anoints the new arrival, played with sincere wide-eye naivety by Bakary Koné, as the new ‘Roman’. Like a modern-day Scheherazade of One Thousand and One Nights, he must spin a story that lasts until dawn. Now their fates are intertwined, and both their lives hang in the balance of the tale to be told.
Night of the King’s prison settings and the use of a Greek chorus – where a group of performers will comment on the main action of a play – lends the film an almost theatrical-like experience. And its themes of power and hidden machinations have a decidedly Shakespearean parallel. But as Roman begins to weave his story of the “Zama King“, a legendary gang leader, the film takes a dramatically different turn as the inmates are swept up by the power of his words and transported far outside the walls of the facility. Through a series of flashbacks, the film travels from a pre-colonial Ivory Coast of kings, queens, and soothsayers and all the way to the not-so-distant real-life overthrow of former president Laurent Gbagbo. The chaos of the prison reflecting the country’s long history of turmoil in a never-ending power struggle.
Ambitious in its reach, Lacôte’s sprawling film mixes mysticism with gritty realism to unusual effect, that although not entirely successful, certainly proves original. Shortlisted for the 2021 Oscar’s International Feature category, Night of the Kings is a confident follow-up to the director’s 2014 debut feature Run.
The first film from the Ivory Coast to be screened at the Cannes Film Festival. With his latest offering Lacôte highlights the cultural importance of oral storytelling and the power of a tale well told to free the audience from their current situation and take them someplace else. With Night of the Kings, the imaginative Lacôte succeeds in doing just that.
Night of The Kings comes to UK cinemas 23rd July and is available to view – Night of the Kings