‘Night of the Kings:’ [Sundance 2021 Review]

Rating: 4/4

It’s said that humanity, regardless of borders and boundaries, can all be united by the same simple things: food, music, art, and stories. Whether through speech, sign language, or pictograms, the art of storytelling has existed probably as long as the human animal was able to communicate. And it has only expanded in form and purpose century after century. A living, breathing pulse that seeks to reach into the hearts and minds of all of us. This is the heart of Ivory Coast filmmaker Philippe Lacote’s beautiful work, Night of the Kings.

Taking place entirely within a prison called MACA, where the prisoners have a culture and hierarchy all their own, Night of the Kings follows the ritual observation whereby the passing of the prison’s king is contingent upon his physical ability to serve. If he is terminally unhealthy, he is required to take his own life in whatever fashion he chooses. If there is a blood moon, however, the leader may postpone his death if he may name a new Roman (storyteller) to tell the prison stories from moonrise until sunrise. In our story, the leader is known as Blackbeard (Steve Tientcheu) and the unwitting, nameless new prisoner is appointed and given the name Roman (Kone Bakary). What follows is the most incredible storytelling performance I have ever seen. 

While Bakary is phenomenal in his role as principal storyteller, the heartfelt weaver of the tale of infamous gang leader Zama King, this film could not be what it is without the coalescence and raw energy provided by the cast as a whole. Made up of actors, actual prisoners, and professional dancers, the verbal tale is intensified by the circle of enraptured MACA prisoners joining in at intervals to sing, dance, chant, and sometimes physically embody characters and aspects of the Zama King saga. The result is a living, breathing story in the most literal sense. Wherein the prisoners react to their Roman and the Roman augments his tale according to their input, additions, and emotional responses. Weaving Ivory Coast folklore with modern cultural concerns and national history, Lacote’s writing as performed through this magnificent ensemble unites all aspects of the Ivory Coast and all the men of MACA regardless of affiliation, class, origin, or even sexuality and gender.

While functionally MACA is an all-male prison, this is meant in purely the basest biological sense. Weaving her way throughout the prison is a fully out and acknowledged transwoman only known as Sexy. While she is objectified by the prisoners to an extent, being a prostitute and object of beauty in a place as decayed and grey as a prison, she is never tokenized or objectified by the film itself. We don’t get any horrified reactions, long backstories, or uncomfortable focus on her physical body as an anomaly. Sexy is just herself, and allowed to be, as the men in the prison are allowed to just be queer without similar othering. It’s an openness that’s so rare to find in the media, according to Lacote, almost unheard of in cinema on the Ivory Coast. 

It’s hard to properly express the visceral and experiential nature of Night of the Kings. Over multiple viewings there is always something new to see or focus on, a movement you may have missed that changes the entire atmosphere of a moment, especially the relationships between the prisoners. It’s a story I couldn’t help but go back to again and again and thought of constantly when the experience was over. The love and ecstatic adoration shown to the art of telling stories and the power of the audience that beholds it permeates every scene and  every word. The quotes rung in my head days later like poetry, or the most beautifully written song. If there was anything wrong with Night of the Kings, it’s that the story had to end.

Images courtesy of Sundance Institute.

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