Night of the Kings

A young member of the Microbes (Bakary Koné), a gang fostering post civil-war violence, arrives at Abidjan’s infamous inmate-ruled MACA prison just as we learn that its leader, Blackbeard (Steve Tientcheu, 2019's "Les Misérables"), is weakening.  Tradition dictates that when the leader falls, he must take his own life.  But another ritual declares that a Roman, or storyteller, be chosen by the Boss with the rising of the red moon to entertain the prisoners all night long or also face death and so Blackbeard chooses the new inmate in “Night of the Kings.”

Laura's Review: B

The Ivory Coast’s submission for the International (formally Foreign Language) Oscar from writer/director Philippe Lacôte is a modern day, gender flipped ‘1001 Arabian Nights’ that takes place over only one evening in an African prison loaded with colorful characters like Half-Mad (Jean Cyrille Digbeu), Razor Blade (Macel Anzian) and the lone white inmate Silence (Denis Lavant, "Beau Travail," "Holy Motors").  As the guard Nivaquine (Issaka Sawadogo) watches the proceedings from another room, Roman nervously starts and stops, landing on the tale of the Zama King, a mythical outlaw whom he claims to have gone to school with, to popular approval.

What is perhaps most unexpected is that Lacôte’s move could almost be considered a dance film, Roman’s words accompanied by inmates creating a striking visual accompaniment via synchronized movement, complementing his words with sound effects inherent in their steps.  These performers are often paralleled within Roman’s story, especially as The Queen (Laetitia Ky) prepares for battle.   The ancient tale’s lush surroundings are cross cut with grimy, realistic prison interiors, emphasizing how Roman’s words transport his fellow inmates to another world.

“Night of the Kings” is about the struggle for power within a prison hierarchy told with magical realism, Lacôte’s tale within a tale giving his audience two entirely different experiences.  Tientcheu creates a striking figure in both his human and chosen reincarnated form, a doe in La MACA’ surrounding forest, while young Koné’s guileless young criminal transforms into an accomplished manipulator.

Robin's Review: B+

A young man (Bakay Kone) is sent to the notorious Ivory Coast prison, La Maca, where, inside, the inmates run the place. There is a red moon coming and, following prison tradition, the Boss, named Blackbeard (Steve Tientcheu), declares the newcomer the new "Roman." But the honor comes with a great and deadly burden for the newly-named storyteller whose life ends when the story ends in "Night of the Kings."

When I read the story synopsis, the first thing that I thought was that this sounds an awful lot like One Thousand and One Nights (known in the west as "Arabian Nights"), condensed down to a single tale over a single night. Then, I started watching "Night of the Kings" and I forgot all about 1001 Nights.

As the soon-to-be-dubbed Roman enters his new "home" it is in a state of bewilderment, wonder and, with good reason, fear. Soon, the prison officials put him into the general population and he comes to the attention of Blackbeard, who names the young man Roman. But, no one will tell him what exactly that means – like what are the consequences when the story is over.

Roman falters when he starts his tale and, when threatened by the crowd, changes to the story of Zama King, a mythical and popular figure, especially for the excited inmates listening with rapt attention, and physical participation. This is where "Night of the Kings" finds its métier as it goes from the storyteller to his story about kings and queens, heroes and battles and despair and hope.

Writer-director Philippe Lacote creates a theatrical feeling – more than once, the films movement and purpose of that movement reminded me of "West Side Story" (which I just watched again, recently) – as the Roman tells his tale. The tale he tells, about Zama King, could have been a movie all on its own.

The characters and their development are fleshed out more with their movement and expression than with florid dialogue. The combination of the prisoners' physical participation as the story is told and the dynamics of prison life as the dying Blackbeard must name a worthy successor to his kingdom are woven together neatly. All of this happens with the image of the red moon, and its deadly meaning for Roman, descending like a pall on the prison and unleashing a blood lust in the inmates. And, for Roman, it is a story of survival.

"Night of the Kings" is the foreign language submission from the Ivory Coast and Lacote and his dynamic cast and crew make it a worthy entry.

Neon releases “Night of the Kings” in theaters and in virtual cinemas on February 26, 2021, and on video on demand on March 5, 2021.