“Tell me a story.” This is the command that Roman (Bakary Koné), a new arrival at La Maca penitentiary — a forest-borne fortress just outside of the Ivory Coast’s capital, Abidjan — is given almost as soon as he arrives. It’s quite a welcome. Dismissed by the prison’s guards for the gang affiliations that landed him here, Roman is thrown into the “jungle,” as the guards call it. And as soon as he arrives, everything else stops. Another inmate, the feminine Sexy (Gbazi Yves Landry), has just been knocked to the ground, portending violence that one needn’t have to see to be able to imagine. But then comes Roman — not the name he was born with, but rather the one he’s been given. Blackbeard (Steve Tientcheu), the Dangôro of the inmates — their ruler — gives him the name, a way of conferring status. Roman is being anointed. But not without a cost.
Blackbeard, as writer-director Philippe Lacôte’s The Night of the Kings quickly establishes, is a man on the verge of death. He is too sick to lead. And the laws of the prison — the laws of the inmates, that is — dictate that a Dangôro, who can no longer lead, must take his own life. Such a transfer of power cannot come easily, of course; usurpers, both men who stand with him and those who oppose him, are already nipping at his heels like so many vultures on the tail of fresh carrion. So it’s up to Roman, a Scheherazade of the Ivory Coast, to keep the inmates distracted through the night by telling stories. He must tell them as if his life depends on it — because, like Blackbeard’s, it does.
The Night of the Kings is no ordinary prison drama, in other words, even as so much of its action is contained within one. This is a film steeped in myth and ritual, besotted with secrets, history, and imagination — with a clear eye on the Ivory Coast’s politics. Roman begins by telling what he knows, which is also a history that his fellow inmates know: the story of a man named Zama King, recently killed and himself a widely-known killer. Roman was there when the man died; his association with the man is part of what landed him at La Maca. But Roman, a young man — like the vast majority of the men here, imprisoned alongside him — only knows so much. Not enough to stay alive through the night. So he invents. And as he does so, the film does, too.
It’s a film-length display of the power of the West African griot, in other words, a movie rooted in the tradition of fabulism, chronicle, the unruly mix of personal and regional history, shot through with both fact and magical realism. Lacôte takes a big cast (featuring, among others, Issaka Sawadogo, Rasmané Ouédraogo, Macel Anzian, Jean Cyrille Digbeu, the feminist artist Laetitia Ky, who makes sculptures out of hair, and the ever-fascinating French actor Denis Lavant), and gives them the largest possible canvasses to work with: history and the imagination. Much of The Night of the Kings’s premise is in fact rooted in reality, not unlike Roman’s tales. Lacôte told the Los Angeles Times that a friend who’d done time at La Maca clued him in to the inmates’ nightly ritual of storytelling. Lacôte’s own mother had been imprisoned at La Maca when the director was but a child, sent there for protesting the autocrat Félix Houphouët-Boigny.
So there’s something at stake in this story, and in Roman’s story, and the filmmaking admirably rises to the challenge. Night of the Kings has a broad, bustling cast, about 40 men strong, that leans heavily on the talents of non-professional actors. Dancers, singers, martial artists, and others lend their full bodies to the production in ways that studied actors might not have, are essential to the film’s slippery magic. This should be apparent from almost the moment the film opens and we get those galvanic tours through the penitentiary’s halls, with their crowds of roving, muscular bodies and the vibrating, pointedly physical sense of life they lend the movie from the get. Cinematographer Tobie Marier-Robitaille’s camera style — handheld, with oil lamps used for light sources — is key here, responding to the men’s bodies and movement as if they, and not “the movie,” were dictating the way the story should proceed. Inescapable is the sense that these halls are ruled, not by the frustrated guards restricted to their offices, but by the men being imprisoned, living by codes of their own.
Which is hardly the same thing as saying that these men are free. That’s one of the most effective tensions at play in Lacôte’s film. Though the forces guarding these men cower with rage, and though the hierarchies ruling the life of Roman as soon as he arrives exist solely among his fellow inmates, it is the act of storytelling in itself, the sense that these stories are overwhelming with consequence, that reminds us of their function. As Roman spins his tales, the men surrounding him heckle, jeer, pantomime, and dance in response, conjuring up the stories live, as they’re being told, before Lacôte’s film gives us a single flashback or vision. And when those visions arrive, they are stark, in part, for being so roving and bright — keen in their effort to remind us that they depict a world outside of the prison, whether real or imagined. The mix of the pantomiming inmates and the recreations of Roman’s stories fixes these tales in our own minds as acts of memory, imagination, myth. As stories playing out in the inmate’s heads: as reminders that though their bodies are captive in La Maca, their imaginations — images and worlds conjured up in their minds — are not.
Of course, for Roman, who knows he must keep spinning these tales to save his life, the work of being the prison’s griot, distracting the lot from the apparent fact of his own imminent death, is not entirely liberating. But even he, as Koné performs him, and as Lacôte’s film stages him dead center as he speaks, seems to come alive as he spins his tales and imagined histories. That these stories are, fantastical or not, rooted in the Ivory Coast’s political history — eager to traverse time and space in order to bring pre-colonial Africa to the forefront, eager to draw complex reminders of African self-governance and keep that lineage alive in the present — seems very much to the point.
If The Night of the Kings — recently shortlisted in the Academy Awards’s International Feature category and that much closer to becoming an Oscar nominee — feels almost too flighty in its set-up, committed to its overarching plot to the point of skimming past the details and energies that make this world so fascinating, it is that much more effective once Roman is on the clock, elocuting to save his life.
It’s this long stretch of the film and the animated detours the film takes through Roman’s stories that give the film its unusual urgency. Not even the silent ticking-away of the clock ruling Roman’s life compares, in its excitement, to the pure fact of seeing Roman take this challenge on, seeing him transform before our eyes from the scared boy that he is into the master-storyteller that he also is. And so is Lacôte. The Night of the Kings is only his sophomore fiction feature. Like the inmates hungry for more fantasy, more myth, more of the clarifying, terrifying excitement that only great stories can provide, we’re left eager for more of what Lacôte, and the wisdom of his vision, has to offer.