Night of the Kings is currently awaiting a UK release date.
Storytelling is built into humanity’s DNA – from prehistoric cave paintings to films, television, and video games; we have always told stories. Everything, ultimately, is a story told by someone. While the act of storytelling has modernised and developed throughout human history, some cultures maintain and honour the traditions of folklore and oral storytelling that form the bedrock of their ancestry – it is their lifeforce. Philippe Lacote’s Night of the Kings demonstrates the importance of storytelling to the Ivory Coast, merging temporality to present West African identity as something nurtured by the present, ever-building from the past.
We follow ‘Roman’ (Koné Bakary), a newly-incarcerated young adult at the notorious MACA prison. Our introduction to the prison visually stunning; rich and dense jungle opposing cold concrete. One overpowering the other, in a complex visual metaphor for not only the inmates’ power within the prison itself but the idea of nature continually reclaiming society. Roman is selected by the prison’s leader Blackbeard (Steve Tientcheu) to become the new storyteller upon the Night of Roman. With this duty thrust upon him, Roman must embrace his role and maintain his story until the dawn.
The prisoners we meet – Lord Blackbeard, Lass, Lookout and Razor Blade are imbued with a folklorish characterisation. Each name, creating a symbolic meaning around the individual we encounter. Blackbeard especially recalls the titular pirate’s mythologisation, creating a tension between the myth and the man we see, loosely holding onto his power and his very life. Mythologization is key to Night of the Kings’ philosophy, as every character has their own myth attached to them, none more so than Roman himself.
Koné Bakary’s Roman is captivating in his own mythologisation of the Roman. His place, unknown within a new societal space as he is suddenly thrust into the spotlight through the mythologisation of himself as Roman. His interactions with Blackbeard and the prisoners tell us that storytelling is paramount within this proto-society, acting as the highest form of currency; to be the Roman is a hallmark of respect and privilege, but it’s also an inescapable destiny. As Roman tells his story, so are stories being made – the downfall of Blackbeard, the rise of Roman, and the Rascals’ uprising.
Spirituality and destiny are also integral to Night of the Kings; both Roman and Blackbeard existentially tied into a fate they cannot avoid. Roman, the iconic storyteller, casting a shadow of demise over Blackbeard as the night progresses. Roman is doubly confined as the storyteller, both within the MACA prison and trapped by Tobie Marier Robitaille CSC’s camera, unable to escape the circle of inmates, its anxious movement telling us of Roman’s wavering uncertainty as a storyteller. Every one of our prisoners is instilled with poetic rhetoric, waxing philosophical motivations and desires, discussing reincarnation, awareness of one’s mortality, and the privilege to tell a story.
Roman’s embracement of the storyteller as a means of survival broaches a grander emphasis on West African culture and tradition. The prisoners uniting to pay respect to the oral tradition of culture. Here, Roman is the griot archetype, known in West-African culture as a storyteller/historian/praise singer. In turn, nurturing the prison’s social fabric and the history of the Ivory Coast, weaving this rich history into a lyrical tapestry that reminds the prisoners of their rich and complex past—in turn, nurturing their identities with the elixir of tradition. Beautiful moments of quiet choreography which formulate visual depictions of Roman’s words strengthen the idea of communal storytelling as one that binds society together.
The Microbes’ mythologisation, Roman’s prior gang, stems from another culture’s storytelling through City of God – stories create stories that create stories. His recollection of the ‘Zama King’s origin from child to gang leader specifically calls upon the meaning of Zama. Roman draws on the strength of others to craft himself as a powerful and captivating storyteller, holding the entire MACA prison upon his every word.
It’s a powerfully beautiful commitment to the ancient tradition of storytelling, as Roman takes us through generations of African history. His account politicising the lyrical texture with a striking depiction of avenues of power. Above all, the absolute power is that of the storyteller, as their words keep society and history alive. We watch the past merge with the present to present us with an Africa existing in different times within the same space – as Lacote himself said, “For Roman, these anachronisms show he shapes his story with diverse fragments like a modern-day Shéhérazade.”
Night of the Kings is an incredible filmic tapestry of West African culture, enriched with a beautiful philosophy of spirituality and destiny, setting the MACA prison as a grand stage of existential renewal and cultural recognition – just as there are those privileged to tell stories, we are privileged to receive this one.