The unnamed young protagonist (Bakary Koné) in Night of the Kings, French-Ivorian director Philippe Lacôte’s latest film, arrives at the Holding and Corrections Prison of Abidjan—referred to by its French acronym, MACA—handcuffed to a pickup truck. But his bonds appear ceremonial: MACA, settled within the Ivory Coast’s Banco forest, is so segregated by greenery from the country’s economic capital that shackles and walls feel like mocking formalities rather than necessities. The prison population is more interned by nature than by MACA’s guards, who treat the prisoners with an ambivalence bordering on fear in recognition that they’re equally trapped. Night of the Kings is a prison film, but unlike most prison films, getting out becomes more figurative than literal.
The characters here coalesce around the newcomer’s presence not in greeting, but out of eagerness and opportunity. The men jailed at MACA run the place, and rival factions with their own power grab schemes seize on Koné’s character as a lever for gaining control. There’s upstart Lass (Abdoul Karim Konaté), cocky and driven by a business-minded approach to governance, and there’s the current king—or Dangôro—Blackbeard (Steve Tientcheu), old, graying, ill and too aware of his own mortality. Custom dictates that when the Dangôro can’t run the show any longer, he has to name an heir and commit suicide. Blackbeard respects that custom more than Lass, who’d like very much to bump off Blackbeard sooner rather than later.
So Blackbeard, wise and patient, invokes the “Night of the Roman,” a ritual that takes place only on a Blood Moon, which just so happens to have risen over Banco. On this eve, a storyteller dubbed “Roman” is chosen to regale the prisoners with tales and yarns until the sun comes up, and when it does, they’re ritually sacrificed as tradition dictates. In Night of the Kings, that poor sap is Lacôte’s anonymous lead, pounced upon by Blackbeard almost immediately and told nothing of his role beyond the inherited name and his role as raconteur. He doesn’t know he’s going to die. He just knows that he has to entertain the masses without stopping, like carrying out a Senate filibuster to keep at bay an undesirable legislative vote.
The film is self-defined but vague at the same time, with clearly outlined rules enveloped in a haze of magical realism couched directly in Roman’s narration. From MACA to the life and times of outlaw hero Zama King (leader of the Abidjan street gang known as the Microbes) to Ivory Coast plains where a sorceress queen (Ivorian artist Laetitia Ky) wars with a wizard who dares challenge her reign, Night of the Kings is a transportive movie. For American audiences, this is true on every conceivable level: Lacôte and cinematographer Tobie Marier-Robitaille take these viewers from the U.S. to Côte d’Ivoire, from freedom to internment, from order to chaos, from reality to fabrication. This dynamic, of course, extends in a lesser capacity to those listening to the stories within the story. MACA’s prisoners find themselves so gripped in Roman’s thrall that they briefly (and metaphorically) leave the prison behind and journey with him to the worlds he describes, real and imagined alike.
Put in bluntest terms, Roman’s stories fixate on escape, temporary as that escape may be. But even a brief reprieve has value to his listeners, and Lacôte actualizes their fleeting liberation on screen through participation: Roman’s fellow inmates sing, or dance, or join in his chronicle with their own contributions—recollections of Zama, for instance—which are either built on by others (or Roman) or rejected outright through jeers and boos. It’s the variations of their engagement with Roman, and thus their engagement with the Night of the Roman itself, that Lacôte focuses on. Where so many other prison movies revolve around gritty human experience and intricate escape plots, Night of the Kings focuses on mores within a system that’s infrequently considered on cultural grounds at all. The inmates of MACA are seen as men instead of as animals—or even straightforwardly as criminals.
Lacôte only goes so far as to clarify that MACA’s guests comprise a spectrum of petty crooks, murderers, and political dissidents, but only hints at who matches up with each description in his wide, interchangeable cast of convicts. Frankly, the differences don’t matter. The warden, Nivaquine (Issaka Sawadogo), sees the prisoners as a homogenized collective brimming with explosive potential, as if the Night of the Roman has fashioned the whole of MACA into a powder keg with a short fuse. His perspective appears to represent a broader social view on what MACA is and who MACA houses, where Lacôte favors a nuanced stance that allows these men their humanity, for better and for worse. He doesn’t see them as misunderstood. He sees them as marginalized and rendered one-dimensional by the power structure keeping them behind bars.
Granted, Marier-Robitaille makes the bars immaterial. He shoots in widescreen, giving MACA immensity and depth that’s at once open and suffocating: The film’s scope makes it easy to forget that it’s set in a prison, and consequently that almost all of the people seen on screen are prisoners. Night of Kings aesthetic dissonance is discombobulating, but the discombobulation is surprisingly pleasing in its headiness, as Lacôte plays with naturalist filmmaking and spectacle right out of The Lord of the Rings, intertwining the two so much that they are, at the end, inseparable from one another. Maybe nothing is more real than the fictions we tell ourselves to make sense of life as we know it—even a life spent locked up.
Director: Phillippe Lacôte
Writer: Philippe Lacôte
Starring: Steve Tientcheu, Abdoul Karim Konaté, Issaka Sawadogo, Denis Lavant, Laetitia Ky
Release Date: December 30, 2020; Sundance 2021 (TBD)
Bostonian culture journalist Andy Crump covers the movies, beer, music, and being a dad for way too many outlets, perhaps even yours. He has contributed to Paste since 2013. You can follow him on Twitter and find his collected work at his personal blog. He’s composed of roughly 65% craft beer.