Deep in a tropical rainforest in Côte d’Ivoire lies a prison known as La Maca, where escape seems pointless and survival is precarious. Behind high, sun-scorched walls, a chaotic community of men live in captivity and within a trembling hierarchy. There are guards, sure, but they are outnumbered and fearful, hiding in offices and jumping at the commands barked by the soldiers of Blackbeard (Steve Tientcheu). He is the king of this prison, ruling with an iron fist. However, this pillar of a man is crumbling, dragging an oxygen tank, an unforgiving symbol of his weakness. To step down from his throne, he must die, either by force or fate, and his minions are growing restless for power.
Into this burbling turmoil, a scrawny new arrival is pitched. To stave off doom, Blackbeard hurls this boy (Koné Bakary) to the wolves who’d devour him. Following the prison’s rich tradition, he names the boy “Roman,” making him the storyteller who must spin a yarn as long as the red moon screams in the sky. Or else.
Written and directed by Philippe Lacôte, Night of the Kings (A.K.A. La Nuit des Rois) pays bittersweet tribute to his hometown, Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire. While the whole of the plot takes place within the dangerous prison, Roman’s story whisks his audience away to bustling streets, humble huts, and a sprawling battlefield where men and magic collide. It’s not these fanciful forays that make Night of the Kings mesmerizing. Instead, it is how Roman’s story comes alive through the throbbing bodies of his brothers in incarceration.
Unsteady upon a soapbox, he stands in a purple silk shirt; a touch that speaks of ritual. He does not understand what is going on around him. All he can control is the story he unfurls, hoping its pleasures might keep his captive audience from turning against him. While he is stiff and fearful, they are fluid and full of imagination. He makes mention of a king or a blind man, and one of his audience strides forth instantly in character. He mentions a scorpion, and a collection of men sink to the floor together to form its arms and striking tail with their limbs. They chant. They cheer. They spin into songs and dances, bolstering his story and inspiring him in spite of his terror. It’s magical in the way of live theater, poignant, graceful, and exhilarating.
Lacôte takes the concept of Scheherazade in One Thousand and One Nights and transports it to his homeland to spin a story of menace, murder, men, and more. Through Roman’s story, we learn not only who he is, but what wonders he can dream up, what magnificent origins, heart-wrenching tragedies, and fantastical tales. Off this stage, Blackbeard readies for his end, on his terms, while his crew scrambles to be his successor. All the while, Lacôte keeps us so close, you can practically feel the heat, smell the sweat on skin, and the blood on the dirt floor.
Weaving a gangster drama into a fairytale of sorcerers, swindlers, and kings makes for a film that is in turn whimsical and harrowing. This dichotomy brings to light the humanity in these men, who are labeled irredeemable by a merciless prison system. Within the storytelling ceremony, they are one, reveling, reviling, and revelatory. Lit by lamplight and moonlight, they are glowing legends of their own making, glorious and terrible. As such, Night of the Kings is a riveting and radiant tribute to the power of storytelling, which gives voice to voiceless, humanity to the demonized, and hope to the hopeless.
Night of The Kings played as part of New York Film Festival 2020’s Main Slate.
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