SUNDANCE FILM FESTIVAL 2021 REVIEW! Philippe Lacôte’s dramatic feature, Night of the Kings, drops us squarely into the middle of Abidjan, Ivory Coast’s infamous MACA prison. The viewer lives this experience through the eyes of a young, unnamed thief who’s brought to the prison for the first time.
MACA prison ostensibly has a government staff of correctional officers, but they are few in number and only interact with the prison population through small slotted holes in the thick walls. The true governance of the world inside the walls is a traditional monarchy run by an inmate king. The reigning king at this time is Blackbeard. The prison is kept out of chaos by strict adherence to traditions handed down from generations of inmates. Blackbeard is unsettled by the impending necessity of bending to the most powerful tradition, the transfer of power to the next leader. The prison rules say that when the leader is sick, he must kill himself to make way for the next. This is non-negotiable. Blackbeard is ailing, he is no longer strong and carries an oxygen tank with him in order to breathe, but he wants to buy more time for himself.
He contrives a way to do this by announcing that the new inmate is to carry the title “Roman,” which is a griot, a ceremonial storyteller. Roman (Bakary Koné), then is burdened with the task of telling stories powerful enough to distract and entertain the inmates, through the long night, until sunrise, on pain of death if his tale ends too soon, or falters.
“The true governance of the world inside the walls is a traditional monarchy, run by an inmate king.”
The young Roman will become Scheherazade for one night. He has no choice if he wants to live. He warms to his task, quickly shaking off his fear and shyness to find his voice. He paints elaborate, epic tales of African royalty of history, which are then shown in flashbacks. The historical scenes are replete with costumes and beautiful landscapes. Magical realism takes over, and the stories wander into fantasy and epic origin mythologies, like Beowulf or The Tain.
Back in the contemporary timeframe, the prisoners naturally fall into dramatic interpretation. Taking on roles and filling in their own reenactments of the events described, including dance and song, they are the Greek chorus following Roman. Despite the fact that they may be his executioners before morning, while the story weaves its spell, they are subject to his direction.
Lacôte’s second directorial feature, Night of the Kings, is an epically ambitious undertaking, roaring along on several parallel tracks, with a dizzying number of sub-stories to track. The world inside MACA prison is a complex, layered cultural and political system. The journey of Roman holds its own details to digest, and the fall of Blackbeard is a story apart. They all figure into the tapestry of the narrative. Whether the movie works for you will be determined by how well you can follow along. A full appreciation of Lacôte’s vision may require several viewings of the film, but it’s well worth the effort.
Night of the Kings screened at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival.
"…full appreciation of Lacôte's vision may require several viewings..."