Sundance Review: “Night of the Kings”

Writer and director Phillippe Lacôte’s “Night of the Kings” left me feeling baffled, but in the pleasant sort of way that makes me want to dive deeper into the world created on screen, and its inspiration behind the scenes. Blurring the line between reality and fantasy, “Night of the Kings”—which played at the Sundance Film Festival this week—is a gorgeous celebration of storytelling and tradition that’s steeped in African culture.

“Night of the Kings” is a French-language film set in the Ivory Coast, where in the city of Abidjan, there’s a prison called MACA located in the forest. The prison is ruled by its inmates, but it is far from the image of lawlessness that that idea likely conjures. The inmates have their own set of beliefs, traditions, and hierarchies that they all follow. Among these rules is that the current boss, called Blackbeard (Steve Tientcheu) must step down from his role and take his own life after falling ill. But Blackbeard is able to buy some time by invoking the Night of Roman before the next red moon. He finds his Roman, or storyteller, in a young new arrival to MACA (played by Bakary Koné). The Roman must tell the inmates a story that lasts until the red moon sets, or he will be killed.

Bakary Koné as the Roman in “Night of the Kings”

Lacôte doesn’t tell us a whole lot about his characters—even with our protagonist, we never learn his name and are only vaguely aware of why he is in prison. But we enter the world he has created feeling like we have walked into a rich and fully realized environment. Lacôte could have explained more—maybe that would have been more appealing to some viewers—but it really isn’t necessary. “Night of the Kings” is less about the individual, and more about the story and the group as a whole (even though there are some fascinating supporting players who come and go throughout the film, we never learn much about them beyond a surface level). As the Roman, dressed in almost princely garb, begins to tell his story, at first unsure (he tells the group that he doesn’t know any stories), but gaining confidence throughout the night, the power of oral storytelling takes hold. He stands in the middle of the ring of assembled inmates, but he is not the only participant. As the Roman talks, other inmates jump in to act out what he is describing, like an improvised dance, while the others cheer or boo or otherwise respond to what they are hearing. It’s a give-and-take between the storyteller and his audience that gives the inmates a sense of freedom beyond the prison walls, and it’s mesmerizing and powerful to behold.

Laetitia Ky as the Queen in “Night of the Kings”

The story that the Roman is telling involves Zama King, a recently murdered gang leader who the Roman knew in real life. The story meanders between the present day and the past, and contains elements both real and imagined. Some of these sequences are nonsensical, but beautiful, particularly one that imagines a young Zama going into the battle alongside a glorious African queen (Laetitia Ky). It feels appropriate that the Roman jumps around in his story in a seemingly random fashion, as he tries to stretch his story for as long as he can, and there’s certainly a feeling of suspense underneath the sense of wonder as we await his fate.

“Night of the Kings” also cements Lacôte (this is his second narrative feature film) as one of Africa’s most exciting and intriguing new filmmakers. Lacôte also blends magic and reality in the film outside of the Roman’s story, injecting his own experiences as a native of Abidjan. MACA is a real prison in the Ivory Coast, and Lacôte recalls going there to as a child to visit his mother, and the prisoners wandering freely among the visitors. The Night of Roman is an actual tradition there, something that Lacôte learned about from a friend who was a former inmate. It almost sounds too mystical to be true, but Lacôte builds on his personal experiences and the talent of his actors who hail from various parts of Abidjan (Koné, who has a commanding presence when he speaks but whose wide eyes led him an air of innocence, is truly a great find) to craft a unique film that pays tribute to the power of story and tradition.

“Night of the Kings” will be released on in select theaters and virtual cinemas on February 26 and on demand on March 5. Runtime: 93 minutes.

Media review screener courtesy NEON.

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