Under the red moon, a storyteller gathers his audience. The storyteller has no escape from the narration, and the audience has no choice but to listen — it’s not like they have anywhere else they can go. Night of the Kings, directed by Philippe Lacôte, is set in one of the most terrifying prisons in the Ivory Coast, but even the people in this place sometimes need a good story to help them get through the night.
The film is a co-production between France, the Ivory Coast, Canada, and Senegal, and is rooted in oral tradition — drawing inspiration from the figure of the griot in West African culture. A griot acts as a repository of oral tradition and embodies multiple roles as a storyteller, historian, praise singer, and poet.
The tale begins when a young pickpocket (Koné Bakary) is a new arrival at the prison MACA in the Ivorian capital of Abidjan. The prison is an ominous fortress, a black hole, an alternate dimension, and while the camera starts by roaming in a drone shot over the quiet and still forest, soon we arrive at the cacophonous prison where people are clamoring at the gates. “The MACA prison is a world with its own laws,” the title cards tell us. It’s governed by its own leadership and unwritten mandates. Yet this is also a place ruled by tradition and superstition. As a red moon rises, the newcomer is selected by the prison boss, the mythical-sounding Blackbeard (Steven Tientcheu), to be the new “Roman” — meaning he must tell a story all night to keep the incarcerated men entertained and to keep his life. Under the red moon and the threat of death, the pickpocket’s story begins.
Night of the Kings has a highly theatrical quality to it, as if we are watching an elaborately staged play filmed within the prison’s walls. It makes sense: the film’s name comes from the French title for Twelfth Night, and Kings is a sufficiently Shakespearean tale of intrigue in celebration of dramatic spirit. This young incarcerated man is thrust into the spotlight and becomes a modern-day Scheherezade, weaving tales of blood and betrayal. He entrances his audience with the story of his childhood friend Zama King, who became a crime lord. While there are battles between Blackbeard and his rivals, and plenty of bloodshed and unrest, there is far more violence conjured in the words of the story, not to be seen directly. The boundaries between brutal realism and magical fantasy are porous and permeable, and what is suggested is as petrifying as what is witnessed.
Cinematographer Tobie Marier-Robitaille gives the overpopulated and under-resourced prison a shadowy illumination under the glow of the moon, and song and dance sequences allow actions within the prison to unfold with chaotic and compelling choreography. The soundscape plays on the visible and invisible as offscreen sounds and movements echo through the space as the prison hums with energy. The storyteller stands in the center of a circle of prisoners as the camera pans around him, and his listeners grow rowdy as the sprawling legend of the outlaw comes to life. All the while, the Sword of Damocles hovers over the storyteller’s head.
Lacôte’s script mined the language of the film from memories of visiting his mother at the real MACA prison, where she was held as a political prisoner. Through this film, he captures the voice of the prison but also allows the incarcerated men to put their stories in their own words, fighting for agency and dignity. A prison is a place where stories are told to survive, but also a place where myths are made of the people inside to demonize and demean them. Here, the men of MACA live to tell their own tales — and we had better listen.