When is a prison drama not a prison drama? When it’s Night of the Kings (La nuit des rois), a French-language drama from the Ivory Coast that starts and ends in a brutal jail and soars off in every direction in between.
Philippe Lacôte’s film opens with a shot of the jungle. The camera pans up to reveal a vast building, the Maca prison, one run by its inmates, the governor will later remark to an underling. It’s a jungle out here and it’s going to be a jungle in there too, right? Right. But also very wrong.
Into this pulullating mass of hyper-masculinity – so many shirtless male bodies, so many scowls – is delivered the hero of this story, a young thief about to begin his stay at Maca. He looks proud and tough… until he gets inside, where, by comparison, he suddenly looks like a kid.
What he doesn’t know is that the boss of this place, Barbe Noire (Blackbeard, the subtitles translate) is on his last gasp (literally, he’s on oxygen) as top dog and tradition dictates that once the “Dangoro” has been overthrown, his final duty is to die. There is no retirement plan for former kings of the heap.
As his final roll of the dice, Barbe Noire decrees that, when the next “red moon” (Saharan dust maybe?) rises, there will be a “Night of the Roman” – a storytelling night – and the new arrival, now renamed Roman (French for “story”), has been chosen to entertain his fellow inmates. Or die.
What Roman doesn’t know, but is later told by the prison’s only white inmate, an oddball who scampers around the building with a chicken on his shoulder (Denis Lavant, in another of his bizarre cameos), is that when he finishes his story he will be killed anyway. Another cute prison tradition.
The red moon rises that night, the entire prison turns out, a quaking Roman is given the floor and a modern-day Scheherazade is born. Roman tells a story, then the story of the story, digressing in first one direction, then another, in order to keep the narrative (and himself) alive.
As Roman’s imagination takes wing, so does the film. Roman shifts his story from the gangbanger ghetto back in time to an Africa of fabulous costumes, beautiful queens and magic, while writer/director Lacôte repurposes his hyper-masculine inmates as a theatrical troupe, who add emphasis to key moments of Roman’s story with moments of interpretive dance (I kid you not) and singing.
It’s as unexpected as it is beguiling and the effect is heightened by the fact that the film looks stunning throughout. Is there a single careless frame? I doubt it. Night of the Kings is beautifully colour co-ordinated in French Cinéma du Look style and shot sumptuously by Tobie Marier-Robitaille, whose brilliant work is enhanced by the fluid rhythmic editing of Aube Foglia (these two will have the phone ringing off the hook, as will production designers Tiendrebéogo Rasmané and Bill Mamadou Traoré).
It looks like Lacôte is mapping out a potential future direction for African cinema here, one that draws on the rich mythical tradition while acknowledging the here and now. It’s not exactly Black Panther territory, but in its mix of fantasy and geographic specificity, at times it’s not far off.
City of God is mentioned in passing at one point – Lavant’s chicken even gets a fluttery scene of its own to remind us of City of God’s breathtaking opening sequence – and there’s a definite visual influence from the remarkable ghetto-set Brazilian drama from 2002.
But Night of the Kings is its own beast. Well cast and well made, it’s also a good story well told. Which is entirely appropriate.
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© Steve Morrissey 2021