Director Philippe Lacôte’s Night of the Kings plunges us into Côte d’Ivoire’s infamous Maca prison. We quickly learn that the prison warden has little control over the inmates. The prison is essentially run by a Dangoro—the master inmate—named Blackbeard (Steve Tientcheu). Maca is far from being a pleasant place, though it is not exactly a Hobbesian state of nature either. There is a hierarchy and there are rules and rituals that are strictly observed by all. The rule that sets the plot of Night of the Kings in motion decrees that when the Dangoro falls ill, he must take his own life so that a new Dangoro can take power.
Blackbeard is indeed very ill; but he tries to delay the unavoidable deed—the taking of his own life. As a ruse, he anoints the new prisoner, Roman (Bakary Koné), to tell a story that will distract his allies, foes, and the inmates vying to become the next Dangoro. Roman launches into a meandering tale centered around the life story of a notorious gang leader, Zama. The tale involves Zama’s father, how he became advisor to a bellicose queen, and Zama’s eventual move to Abidjan’s “lawless quarter.” Roman must keep the story going not only to prolong Blackbeard’s life, but his own—the anointed storyteller gets sacrificed after the story ends.
Lacôte creates a wonderful mélange with Night of the Kings. It is a prison drama with cinematic shout-outs to City of God and literary roots going back to One Thousand and One Nights. It is incredible what Night of the Kings does in a mere 90 minutes. We get a story that involves postcolonial African politics, a sociology of prisons, and a gorgeously shot film that captures bodies trying to overcome confinement.
Some of the most fascinating scenes in Night of the Kings involve the dancelike movements done by inmates that dramatize Roman’s story. Night of the Kings captures the poetics of dance, of movement, of storytelling that goes beyond the traditional oral delivery. Amidst all this beauty and these poetic bodies, there are some inexplicable decisions made by Lacôte. A scene involving CGI animals feels totally out of place. The ending also feels rushed, clipped, almost as if the film ran out of ideas.
Night of the Kings is perhaps an allegory referencing the relationship between artist and audience. Sure, the artist needs the audience as much as the audience needs the artist. Tensions do exist, however, in this relationship. Roman is anointed as storyteller, as artist. His life hangs in the balance based on the whims of his audience—once the story is over, and they get bored, they have no use for the artist. Today, when the production of “content” is dependent less on artistic craft or vision and more on audience whims, algorithms based on “if you like x, you may like y,” and crass commerce; the allegory at the heart of Night of Kings is more relevant than ever.
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