Written and Directed by Philippe Lacôte (African Metropolis, Run, The Chronicles of War in the Ivory Coast), Night of the Kings (2020) sees a young man (played by Bakary Koné) sent to “La Maca,” a prison in the middle of the Ivorian forest ruled by its inmates. As tradition goes with the rising of the red moon, he is designated by the Boss, “Blackbeard” (Steve Tientcheu), to be the new “Roman” and must tell a story to the other prisoners. Learning what fate awaits him, he begins to narrate the mystical life of the legendary outlaw named “Zama King” and has no choice but to make his story last until dawn.
This film is approximately 93 minutes long. And not a single minute of that run time is wasted. Lacôte manages to craft an extremely tight and fine tuned script that is extremely gut wretchning and filled to the brim with tension. Right away we see our main character carted off to La Maca prison. We see the prisoners yelling and taunting him, and are introduced right away to the rules of the film. This isn’t a corrupt prison akin to something like The Shawshank Redemption, quite the reverse actually. Instead of seeing a corrupt warden who does what he pleases with the prisoners, keeps them quiet, and makes them fall in line (though there is some of that in this film), the prisoners essentially run the prison. And from the moment when our protagonist arrives at the prison to the dawn of the next day is essentially what ecompasses the entire film. The protagonist is essentially thrust into the position of a storyteller by ‘Blackbeard,’ and must continue the story if he wants to survive. While the main character himself is not the most complex, he is essentially an eye for the audience. We learn what’s at stake being the Roman as he learns about it. The whole film thrives on watching and waiting for something to go astray, and to hopefully survive the wrath of the hardened prison system and the position that was thrust upon him.
If it wasn’t made clear, this film was just so tightly written and so tightly paced that it created such a rich, visceral, intense experience that constantly makes you wonder what someone will do or what’s going to happen next. I mentioned the writing, but a lot of that also has to do with the direction and editing. When this film really starts to shine is when the red moon comes out and the story begins. We see all the prisoners rush out to the prison yards, lights from the watchtowers shining on them, as the guards and prison wardens go to hide, letting the prisoners take over. It doesn’t stop there, as the energy, chaos, and tension all continue when Roman begins his story. Not only do the prisoners surround him and consistently shout at him, but we also see the prisoners begin to act out the scenes Roman is telling them. Philippe Lacôte does a phenomenal job of making a sequence of a guy telling a story to a bunch of people, which on paper sounds very dull, super heightened and stomach churning. Something else I really like about Lacôte’s directing is that he is not afraid to shy away from the horrors, both subtle and extreme, of these characters. Right away we see the prisoners terrorize another prisoner in an extremely upsetting way, but also in a way where right away we see what these guys are capable of, before more about the night of the red moon is revealed. That way, when you get to the storytelling scene, you find youself constantly on edge because you already knew that anything could happen to Roman. There’s also a very deep lore and sense of tradition bult around La Maca, most of which is carried by the dying leader of La Maca ‘Blackbeard’ (played excellently by Steve Tientcheu I might add).
I mentioned the editing briefly, but I cannot stress enough how seamlessly editor Aube Foglia (The Little Girl Who Was Too Fond of Matches, Triptych, Nô), transitions us from the night at La Maca into the stories that Roman is telling. Even the way the film transitions from one location to another in the same scene is super seamless and always keeps me engaged in the action and what will come next. Credit also goes to the writing from Lacôte for this too, but getting to see the stories unfold and getting to see and know Zama King as a character was a fantastic addition to the story that actually helped to enhance the experience. This lack of detraction is due to the way the prison and the stories are blended so effortlessly together.
There was unfortunately only one scene that took me out of the film for a moment. As the story goes on, it is clear that it starts to get more and more fantastical as it goes along. With that being said, at a certain point I think it does go a tiny bit far. The scene starts out outstanding, with this beautiful shot of the Queen (Laetitia Ky) and her enemy’s respective armies facing off against eachother as their respective leaders stand atop a podium. Those first few shots were honestly breathtaking, and really showed the size and scope of what was at stake in this scene. The scene, and the story, starts to get really fantastical with the two rulers summoning different animals, elements, and transforming into different things themselves. Maybe it was the combination of cheesy special effects, wire-work, and acting, but this scene just really took me out of the film for moments, likely because the rest of the film is so visceral and grounded that this over the top fight felt a bit too out there.
Verdict: 4.5 out of 5 Stars
Brillant directing, writing, cinematography, lighting, acting, and editing make Night of the Kings (2020) an extremely gut wrenching, high stakes experience that will keep you anticipating what will happen next. More than anything, this film serves as a strong love-letter to the power of storytelling, and how we transform the people in our lives, and ourselves, through our stories.