“Night of the Kings”, which was selected as Ivory Coast’s official entry to Best International Film Oscar in last year (It was included in the shortlist although it was not subsequently nominated), is a little but extraordinary film to be admired for many reasons. I must confess that I cannot tell you that much about what it is about, but I appreciate how it is about a lot nonetheless, and this is definitely something you have to experience for yourself.
The movie is set in one infamous prison outside Abidjan, the capital city of Ivory Coast. Inside this big prison, hundreds of male inmates form their own community as being isolated from the world outside by those huge walls and a number of prison guards, and the prison guards do not do much except guarding the walls because the inmates are virtually running the place while firmly sticking to their own set of rules.
According to the one of these rules, all the inmates of the prison must obey under the leadership of “the Dangôro”, who is virtually the king of inmates in the prison. If he becomes too ill to govern, the Dangôro must abdicate and then let himself die, but the current Dangôro, who is nicknamed Blackbeard (Steve Tientcheu), is not so willing to go gently into darkness even though his days are clearly numbered due to his worsening physical condition. Knowing well that there are already several other inmates eager to grab his position sooner or later, he is not going to give up his position easily at all, so he decides to go all the way with a certain risky traditional event which is held whenever the red Moon rises on the sky.
That traditional event requires someone to function as a griot, or a storyteller, shall we say, to tell a story to the inmates in the prison, and he must engage and entertain his tough audiences till the next morning for not getting killed by them. Although he could choose anyone in the prison at his whim, Blackbeard instead chooses a teenage inmate who has just been transferred to the prison after meeting and then speaking a bit with the boy, and the boy, who was incidentally arrested for his association with some notorious local gang in Abidjan, is certainly perplexed and frightened as coming to learn of what he is demanded to do for surviving the upcoming night.
As those prison guards are phlegmatically watching from the outside, the event is eventually started with lots of aggressive excitement among the inmates, and the boy remains as scared as before, but it soon turns out that he is a fairly good storyteller. Although he stumbles a bit for a while at first, he starts with the story about the well-known leader of his gang organization, and then he gives his tough audiences more as they get more engaged and excited word by word.
While we are not so sure about how much of his story is actually real, we gradually come to sense more of the power of storytelling as the boy and the inmates actively interact with each other. While the parts of his story are shown on the screen with some fantasy elements, some of inmates enthusiastically depict several key moments via their physical movements, and the mood becomes more tense and exuberant as a result.
As the boy’s storytelling freely moves across time and space, the movie gives us a number of impressive moments to linger on our mind. We are amused by a bold moment involved with one magical tribal battle between a beautiful queen and her opponent, and then we are baffled as the story somehow flows to a modern background. A certain big real-life political upheaval in Ivory Coast is mentioned later in the film, and we come to sense more of how the movie functions as the broad reflection of the cultural and historical background of Ivory Coast.
In the meantime, the screenplay by director/writer Philippe Lacôte also focuses on its main background and a number of various criminal figures inhabiting inside this background. Besides Blackbeard’s subordinates and opponents, the movie pays some attention to several other colorful characters including a seductive transgender inmate and an old French dude with a chicken on his shoulder, and there is also the growing intrigue around Blackbeard. In one of the quieter moments in the film, Blackbeard has a brief private moment with the boy, and he shows a bit of his softer side while revealing to the boy on why he chose the boy right from the beginning.
I think the eventual finale feels a bit abrupt, Lacôte and his crew members including cinematographer Tobie Marier Robitaille keep us engaged as before, and he also draws the good performance from his cast members, most of whom did not have any movie acting experience before being cast for the film. While Koné Bakary earnestly holds the center with his unadorned natural performance, Steve Tientcheu and several other main cast members are solid in their respective supporting roles, and Denis Lavant, a French actor who has been known mainly for his frequent collaborations with Leos Carax, naturally steals the show as the sole Caucasian character among many African guys in the film.
In conclusion, “Night of the Kings” is quite distinctive in terms of mood and storytelling, and Lacôte demonstrates here that he is another interesting African filmmaker to watch. Although I have not seen his two previous films “African Metropolis” (2013) and “Run” (2014), he is a talented filmmaker who knows how to interest and then engage audiences as far as I can from “Night of the Kings”, and I think I can have some expectation on his next work in the future.