The exploration of hierarchies inside male prisons is more than covered ground in cinema, from Brute Force, to Papillion to The Shawshank Redemption. But rarely is an entry as specific as West African filmmaker Philippe Lacôte’s Night of the Kings, which takes place inside the bowels of the infamous La MACA prison in Abidjan, Ivory Coast (or Côte d’Ivoire). While the film, both written and directed by Lacôte, is grounded in oral traditions that may seem exotic to certain viewers, the movie is really about the universal power of storytelling regardless of origin — and how it can be used as a way to survive. Though hampered by some shaky third-act choices, Night of the Kings is through and through an often immersive visual experience even as it unfolds almost like a filmed play.
When a young man (Koné Bakary, in his acting debut) is introduced into La MACA, he’s thrust into a dangerous and complicated world where the existentially and otherwise beaten-down guards pretty much let the prisoners run the show and they’re led by legacy prisoner Blackbeard (Steven Tientcheu). Blackbeard is on his way out, preparing to die by suicide to allow for a successor, but he’s not going out quietly. In a final power play to manipulate his lackeys and their latest charge, he dubs the young man “Roman” and, on the night of a red moon, the newcomer is forced to recount a story of his choosing or invention until sunrise if he wants to stay alive. (A partially real practice in La MACA.)
The scenes inside the prison maintain a strong sense of realism, even with a wacky Denis Lavant haunting the edges as La MACA’s sole white inmate. But when Roman takes flight into his story, a sort of fairytale about the Zama King, the notorious leader of the “microbe” gang that brought violence upon Abidjan and reviled by the inmates, Night of the Kings moves into the realm of fantasy. With Zama King’s story spanning decades and many harrowing tragedies including the death of his mother before his own eyes, up until the 2011 collapse of Ivorian president Laurent Gbagbo, the film throughout does it best at trying to find a captivating sense with it storytelling and balancing some other drama within the prison.
While La MACA was originally built to contain 1,500 prisoners, it’s reportedly packed with thousands more, and cinematographer Tobie Marier-Robitaille turns the environment into a kind of lush hothouse, with gleaming shadows of red from the moon casting an eerie glow over the inmates and beads of sweat illuminating off their skin; enlivened by oil lamps and flames that blend in with moments of song and dance that becomes intertwined with Zama King’s story.
Soon enough Lacôte moves the film from the theatricality of men letting the emotion of the moment overtake them to flashbacks of a Queen (Laetitia Ky) and her blind wizard Soni (Rasmané Ouédraogo). It’s here that some crude VFX work hops in and begins to break some of the spell of its storytelling performance as humans anthropomorphize and float in the air. Its when Night of the Kings is more locked into its realism that its really pumping, not feeling strained for something bigger. As it delivers allegories on the tumultuous history of the Ivory Coast through its stories, the film, with its meshing of childlike fantasy and the violent machismo, might not always hit the stride of its ambitions. Which doesn’t ever mean they aren’t admirable, because it’s when they do that the film finds its the engrossing potential of storytelling itself. An at times captivating hybrid of theatricality and the historical, Night of the Kings ultimately is a film that shines in its rich sense of place and in its celebration in the act of storytelling.
Night of the Kings screened at the 2020 Chicago International Film Festival. It has been acquired by Neon for U.S. distribution