The beauty of storytelling is its ability to transport someone to another place, another world, without moving from one’s seat. And more than any other artform, it has shaped the destiny and progress of humanity. From the ancient epics to oral histories to the written word to music to the visual media of television, film, and gaming, the story is one of the few universal currencies of our species. It is escapism in the figurative sense, but in Philippe Lacôte’s prison drama, Night of the Kings, it becomes literal in the form of life and death. Can a good story save a man’s life when a system he does not understand has already condemned him, and what role does he ultimately play? That is the central question posed by the Ivory Coast’s submission to the Academy, a captivating bit of magic realism in the most grim of settings.
At an Ivorian prison known as “La MACA,” the inmates literally run the asylum, and have a distinct hierarchical structure. While there are guards and police who ostensibly handle the operations, they are largely in the background, and when the film enters its main action, they are the ones locked up, holed inside a small office waiting for the events of the evening to conclude. The real leader of the penitentiary is a hulking ruler called Blackbeard (Steve Tientcheu from last year’s French nominee, Les Misérables), who controls the establishment from a fairly well-appointed cell, served by a squad of lackeys who run the various gangs throughout the facility. In La MACA tradition, when the leader becomes ill and can no longer serve in his role, he must commit suicide, and one of the lower bosses takes his place. If he does not name a successor, a gang war will surely erupt among rival factions. The most powerful of the bunch is called Lass (Abdoul Karim Konaté), who senses an opportunity to seize power, as Blackbeard is on his last legs, dependent on an oxygen tank to breathe.
As his power wanes, Blackbeard sees a new inmate brought into the prison, and immediately dubs him “Roman,” The Storyteller (Bakary Koné). As a blood-red full moon rises that night, Blackbeard uses the rare celestial occurrence to declare one last bit of power, a “Night of Roman,” where Roman must spend the entire night telling a satisfactory story to all the inmates, or he will be killed by being impaled on a meat hook dangling from the top of a stairwell, an all but literal Sword of Damocles. As explained by the warden, Nivaquine (Issaka Sawadogo), blood must be shed on a Night of Roman, and doing so could allow Blackbeard to cling to his authority for a short while longer. At minimum he’ll be able to hold court one last time.
With dozens gathered around him, Roman, now thrust into the role of a modern-day Scheherazade, begins his story, telling them that he is a small-scale thief and gang member, and an associate of Zama King, a real-life gangster who was killed a few years ago. Zama is a well-known figure among the inmates, who begin to act and dance and sing as a participatory audience. Roman, knowing he must tell the story until dawn to survive, invents a mystical, royal backstory for Zama, in hopes that it will be enough.
The execution of the story is something truly beautiful to behold. Incorporating magical realism and gritty, almost gonzo camera techniques from films like On Body and Soul and City of God (the latter of which is directly referenced in the movie), Roman’s tale wavers back and forth between a fantasy flashback of an idyllic beachside village and tribal warfare to the crowded prison hall, where the inmates have turned the affair into an impromptu stage production. Every detail is acted out by a different person who simply takes it upon himself to cry out in melodic anguish, or to impersonate a blind man, or to sing the praises of the imagined queen that Zama’s father serves. Imagine if the Lion King musical were crossed with the interactive elements of Rocky Horror, and you get a fairly good idea of how it’s presented.
But what really grabs you, and keeps you just locked in, is the way Roman tells the story. His terror is palpable the whole way, expressed through his eyes. And yet, as his audience gets more into it, and he feeds off their energy, you can see the slightest hint of him embracing the role of a storyteller, even though he never gets so involved that he neglects the mortal nature of his conscripted duty. This is a very large credit to Koné’s performance. He’s able to inflame your imagination while still being fully aware of the stakes.
While the political theatre takes place in the literal background, Roman’s accidental theatre makes for some incredible camera work and choreography. A Shakespearean drama unfolds around him, and what’s amazing is that while the life-threatening role was given to him without choice or context, Roman finds himself in control of the players. He was brought in to be Blackbeard’s “poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage and is heard no more,” but through sheer determination and imagination, Roman becomes the “wise man [that] knows himself to be a fool” and plays the part appropriately.
I absolutely love this film. Bringing out humanity through storytelling, and using it in the novel context of prison currency, is nothing short of genius. And for such a simple, and admittedly (to the characters) illogical and poorly structured story to give a man a lease on life he didn’t even know he needed borders on the profound. To then take that thematic framework and give us an otherworldly display of culture that we’d never otherwise see through voice, dance, and pure imagination is something extraordinary. Night of the Kings has the makings of a modern masterpiece.
Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? Have you seen any other African films? If your life was on the line, what story would you tell? Let me know!