Movie Review 'Night of the Kings'
The Ivory Coast delivers a powerhouse piece of unique storytelling in Night of the Kings.
I can honestly say that I am not at all familiar with the rich history of storytelling from Africa’s Ivory Coast. But, after experiencing the new movie Night of the Kings, I am fascinated by the intensity, invention and participatory style they’ve pioneered. The unique and thrilling story told in Night of the Kings uses this fantastic device of traditional storytelling to create a thriller narrative set inside of a famed Ivory Coast prison.
Directed by Phillippe Lacote, Night of the Kings or Les Nuit Des Rois, stars newcomer Bakary Kone as The Roman. The Roman is the name assigned to a prisoner at La MACA, the famed jungle prison of the Ivory Coast, when they are chosen as storyteller. This is not an honor however, as our young protagonist will soon learn, being The Roman comes at a cost. Chosen by the prison’s de facto Chief, Lord Blackbeard (Steve Tientcheu), a fellow prisoner, The Roman is more of a death sentence than an honor.
It is a tradition in La MACA prison that on the night of a blood moon, a storyteller is chosen and must stand before the other prisoners and entertain them with either a story of their life or a fantastical tale from their imagination. Our young Roman is a mere pickpocket, accused of murder following the stoning of his friend and gang leader. With few stories to tell, The Roman launches into his friend’s life story beginning with his death and tracking back to his fantasy of birth.
The friend is a criminal legend in the Ivory Coast by the name of Zama King. On the very day that our young storyteller was brought to La MACA, the same day he was crowned The Roman, he’d watched Zama be stoned to death, helpless to stop it. Unaware of the fate of The Roman, our protagonist starts with the death of Zama King, only to have to circle back and invent a fanciful origin story for his friend as a way of keeping himself alive until the blood moon passes.
Coinciding with the drama of The Roman is that of Lord Blackbeard whose fate is also being decided tonight. Lord Blackbeard has fallen ill recently and tradition dictates that he name a successor to his leadership and take his own life during the Blood Moon. Up to the last moment, Blackbeard has been politicking to find some way to stay alive. However, his enemies, including a former lackey named Lass, are working to assure his fate while also planning how they will change how the prison is run.
If you are looking for a traditional good versus evil narrative in Night of the Kings, you won’t find one. Our protagonist, The Roman, is a relative innocent, but those surrounding him are thieves and bloodthirsty killers each with their own varying motivations and machinations. His only real ally is a man known as Silence (Denis Levant), the only white man in La MACA. Silence is believed to be insane and carries a chicken on his shoulder. However, when the chips are down, he’s the one delivering key information that could be the difference between life and death for The Roman.
Director Lacote has crafted an ingenious narrative filled with shifting tides of loyalty and roiling waves of rising and falling emotions. All of it is present in The Roman’s story which he tells in a lively enough fashion but, in the Ivory Coast tradition, he’s not telling the story alone. The audience of prisoners participate in telling the story by improvising chants to punctuate story beats or by acting out scenes as narrated by The Roman.
The film’s imaginative presentation doesn’t stop there however, as the story leaves La MACA via the imagination which takes us deep into some fictional past where The Roman narrates a great battle between an ancient Queen (Laetitia Ky) and her little brother for control of the Ivory Coast throne, all witnessed by a young Zama King and his blind father. This scene is epic for the otherwise prison set Night of the Kings and it absolutely works.
The fantastic meets the downright barbarous and it’s all brilliantly knitted together by Director Phillippe Lacote, Editor Aube Foglia and Director of Photography Tobie Marier-Robitaille. The look of Night of the Kings is gritty and sweaty, never inviting, but not so ugly that you want to look away. You really can’t take your eyes off of Night of the Kings because the story and the characters are so lively and the storytelling is so incredibly captivating.
Night of the Kings had a virtual debut on December 30th and will be featured as part of the Sundance Film Festival on February 1st, 2021.