In an Ivory Coast forest stands a prison run by inmates – MACA – Philippe Lacote’s 2020 film Night of the Kings (in French, with subtitles) shows just how much these inmates have to offer each other, and themselves, over the course of a single night.
Blackbeard (Steve Tientcheu) is the current Dangoro, or leader, at MACA. He is also dying, and according to the rules the inmates have set up, he must kill himself since he cannot lead. To stave off several factions which have designs on his position, Blackbeard agrees to name a Roman, a storyteller, for the upcoming red moon. Meanwhile, a new prisoner (Bakary Kone) enters MACA. He is named Roman and starts his tale, about the life of Zama King, leader of the gang he was part of, the Microbes. The newly-named Roman doesn’t know he’s telling the story for his life, but if he finishes it before morning, he’ll be killed.
Though the film is realistic in scope, the story Roman tells uses magical realism, really bringing to life the storytelling tradition. Zama King’s father Soni (Rasmane Ouedraogo), he tells his rapt audience, is a blind beggar who convinces a local queen (Laetitia Ky) that he has magical powers. She thus uses him and his magic in a war against her brother. The story spins off from there, occasionally acted out by the prisoners. Since the setting for the story is a large decrepit living space in the prison, acting out the story works well when paired with the dialogue.
Kone plays Roman quietly, but with strength. He never tells anyone how exactly he got to MACA, and the audience never learns his real name. He focuses on the story he has to tell, and once he realizes that greater things are at stake, he fights to continue storytelling to save his life. Tientcheu’s Blackbeard is the heartbeat of the film, however. He’s a member of the older generation who can see the blood that will be spilled if the warring factions are allowed to fight for control of MACA. He knows he’s dying, yet believes that he will be reincarnated as a doe after death. Tientcheu plays him with dignity and grace. The prison’s factions are quelled for another night by the story, and the audience is also caught by the beauty and brutality of the tale.
Lacote’s latest film is both gorgeous and harsh in all the right places.
Night of the Kings
dir. Philippe Lacote
Now playing in select virtual cinemas
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