[Ed. note: This review originally appeared in conjunction with Night of the Kings’ premiere at the 2020 Toronto International Film Festival. It has been updated for the film’s theatrical and streaming release.]
Every film is about telling a story, but few take that idea so literally as Night of the Kings (La Nuit des Rois). Philippe Lacôte’s new film, which was selected as the Ivory Coast’s Best International Feature Film entry for the 93rd Academy Awards, takes place over the course of one fateful night, as weaving a compelling tale becomes the difference between life and death for one young man.
Trouble is brewing within the walls of Abidjan’s La MACA prison. The guards have given up on controlling the prisoners, who have created their own hierarchy. The prisoner Blackbeard (Steve Tientcheu) is the current leader, or “dangoro,” but his failing health has made him a target. To make sure his reign ends on his own terms, Blackbeard designates the newest inmate (Koné Bakary) as “Roman,” the prison storyteller, as part of a prison ritual that everyone within La MACA’s walls seems to take for granted. But Roman’s new position comes with a catch: a red moon is set to rise, signaling the night of his debut. Why does he have to tell a story? And what happens after his story is finished?
Only the prison’s resident oddball and sole white inmate, Silence (Denis Lavant), offers something close to an answer in his advice to Roman. Don’t stop telling the story until the sun rises, Silence says in his roundabout way. If it ends any sooner, it’ll mean the end of Roman’s life, too. Roman chooses his old friend Zama King, an infamous gang leader, as the subject of his story. As he slowly pieces together the truth of what Silence has told him, he jumps back and forth in the tale as he tries to buy time and keep the gathered crowd engaged and distracted. Each time his story seems to wrap up, and the audience’s bloodlust is sparked, Roman tames it, saying he forgot a crucial part of the story, then diving into a new part of King’s life.
Roman’s telling winds up in the realm of fantasy as the night wears on, but the power struggle in the prison helps keep the proceedings from feeling too disjointed. Tension ratchets further up as other dynamics emerge. Blackbeard is trying to fend off two would-be usurpers: his ambitious second-in-command, and the upstart Lass (Abdoul Karim Konaté). Meanwhile, a crossdressing young man referred to as “Sexy” (Gbazy Yves Landry) does what he has to in order to survive.
Though Lacôte’s deft juggling of multiple interweaving stories is impressive, what ultimately makes Night of the Kings so special is how clearly the director depicts the power in telling a story. The tale of Zama King unfolds partially in re-creation through Roman’s narration, but the most striking parts of the film come when the prisoners take it upon themselves to act out scenes. Their re-enactments are balletic; the scenes set in the prison take on the air of a stage play, as street fights and magical duels are portrayed solely with human bodies. Men leap over each other and hold each other up to properly pay tribute to the story of Zama King. At points, they even begin to sing. That cooperation and grace stands in sharp contrast with the way they interact with each other when violence breaks out.
The nominal purpose of the prison’s storytelling ritual is to entertain the prisoners with a story. But more importantly, they’re promised bloodshed once the latest Roman finishes his tale. But the new Roman’s skills underline the potential of a good story to not only inspire more art, but to create hope as well. King’s fantastic life, shot by cinematographer Tobie Marier-Robitaille in lush, warm hues, couldn’t be more different from the dark, dank confines of La MACA. Roman’s ability to convey that sense of life and freedom is what captures the imaginations of the prisoners listening to him, even as it’s serving as his literal lifeline.
Night of the Kings occasionally strays too far into fantasy (and CGI), even though the more grounded scenes are what truly make the film sing. Still, it’s a stunning work. Lacôte’s tribune to the power of stories is a powerful story in and of itself, celebrating oral traditions and the rituals we create for ourselves in order to make life just a little more bearable.
Night of the Kings is playing in theaters and streaming digitally via virtual cinemas. It will be available on VOD platforms on March 5.