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Night of the Kings ★★★★



Director – Philippe Lacôte

Cast – Koné Bakary, Steve Tientcheu, Digbeu Jean Cyrille, Rasmané Ouédraogo, Issaka Sawadogo and Denis Lavant

Released: Sundance Film Festival 2021

Night of the Kings’ atmospheric tale of one night within La Maca prison’s grounds both chills and enthrals from the outset. Philippe Lacôte’s second feature film straddles fantasy-realism and history when a young man is imprisoned within the Ivory Coast’s infamous prison and becomes the designated storyteller as the ‘Roman’ for the night of the Red Moon. Set within a forest, La Maca is ruled by its inmates with its own hierarchy, codes and rules established by them. Night of the Kings is a truly immersive experience as it unveils the prison’s ‘Roman’ tradition to powerful effect over the course of the night.

For Lacôte, it was important to highlight the Ivory Coast’s tradition of storytelling within the film, and the ritual of the Roman is a true tradition within the prison. The incumbent leader of the prison, Blackbeard chose the young man, only referenced as Roman, as part of his attempt to remain in power and quell any uprisings within the prison. There is constantly that sense of machinations occurring as the camera pans zooming in on stealthy observations by the inmates, secret notes being delivered and night time whisperings where it is established quickly that to ensure survival it is a requisite to be part of these inner secrets.

Lacôte had been exposed to the inner world of La Maca from a young age whilst visiting his mother, held in prison for political reasons, and so Night of the Kings is a very impactful tale. The film’s title itself provides an indication of the power dynamics in effect as La Nuit des Rois in French means Twelfth Night; the Shakespeare play concerning power struggles. The construction of the crowd listening to the stories reflects this Shakespeare theatre element – the men gather in a circle similar to a gathering at a boxing ring and the arrival of Blackbeard to proceedings is reminiscent of a King’s arrival with court jesters providing entertainment.

Night of the Kings provides a compelling insight within this microcosm operating within the prison. The film has a rich tapestry emphasising the cultures and traditions of Western African countries despite the apparent criminality of the setting. Roman evokes the spirit of a griot, a West African storyteller, by similarly embodying the past, the present and the future within the tale he recounts designed to last the whole night until the ritual passes. The film’s dark and sinister atmosphere during such storytelling scenes conveys a system on the cusp of disruption with an uncertain future despite the efforts of Blackbeard and other factions to maintain the status quo and the existing traditions.

Night of the Kings demonstrates its commitment to the superstitions and folklore present within Western African culture; there are references throughout the prisoners to spirituality and an evident reverence to the historical Kings and Queens that shaped the culture. Lacôte’s masterful direction interweaves a musicality within the film with an effective call and response technique employed. The prisoners’ reactions in response to the tales recited by Roman are both mesmerising and rousing. The prisoners invoke a theatricality within their interpretations of the words spoken by using dance movements and mini-performances to convey the emotions.  

Surprisingly, the mesmerising Koné Bakary as Roman had his big-screen debut in Night of the Kings. Under Lacôte’s direction, his performance is magnetic to behold and perfectly captures the essence of the historic Ivory Coast traditions whilst embracing the modern world within the storytelling. These traditional cultural elements are necessary to preserve, and Lacôte wants to ensure that the Ivory Coast has that opportunity for its voice to be heard within International cinema.

Night of the Kings is an impressive second feature for Lacôte. After featuring at Venice, Toronto, New York and now the Sundance film festival, there will undoubtedly be the platform for these West African stories to continue to be heard.

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