Storytelling Is Power in the Mesmerizing 'Night of the Kings' | Movie+TV Reviews | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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Storytelling Is Power in the Mesmerizing 'Night of the Kings'

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JAIL TALES Koné plays a newcomer to a dreaded prison who must spin stories to survive in Lacôte's gritty fable. - COURTESY OF NEON
  • Courtesy Of Neon
  • JAIL TALES Koné plays a newcomer to a dreaded prison who must spin stories to survive in Lacôte's gritty fable.

Our streaming entertainment options are overwhelming — and not always easy to sort through. This week, I watched a prison drama from Ivory Coast that was short-listed for the 2021 Academy Awards. An inventive blend of realism and fable, Night of the Kings streams through the Vermont International Film Foundation's Virtual Cinema through April 15. Find more info at vtiff.org.

The deal

In most prisons, the warden's word is law. In Abidjan's notorious La MACA prison, we're told, the inmates themselves choose their king. For years, that has been Blackbeard (Steve Tientcheu), but now illness has painted a target on his forehead. Tradition requires an ailing king to surrender his throne and his life, but Blackbeard won't go down without a fight.

Enter a frightened young gang member (Bakary Koné) who's new to the prison. To buy time for himself, Blackbeard christens him Roman and revives another prison tradition: During tonight's blood moon, Roman will tell a story to entertain his fellow prisoners. If their attention flags ... well, let's just say most Romans don't survive the night. But this one, the nephew of a griot, might have some tricks up his sleeve.

Will you like it?

A tale of storytellers and their place in culture, Night of the Kings grabbed me immediately with its own storytelling, which is traditional in the best sense. In the first 15 minutes, writer-director Philippe Lacôte deftly sets up all the players for a Shakespearean tragedy in a modern setting: the aging king, his steely rival, the allies on both sides, the tricksters and madmen, and the outsider caught in the middle of it all.

Powerful performances support that narrative efficiency. We need spend only a few seconds with the guard Nivaquine (Issaka Sawadogo) to feel him seething with rage and resignation, and the same goes for Blackbeard's jaded weariness and Roman's terror. This is a movie where even the side characters convince us they'd have great stories to tell.

After that traditional beginning, Night of the Kings develops in less traditional ways. An event we expect in the fifth act happens at the midpoint. Roman's story — which blends reality and fantasy, urban gangs and real-life politics, and mythical kings and queens — sometimes usurps the narrative. A power-struggle drama becomes a fable of how artists survive in times of chaos — by telling the stories that help people make sense of it all.

Even as the ground shifts under us, Night of the Kings remains compelling. The limited setting and time frame of a single night give the film a strong theatrical quality, bearing out what Lacôte told Variety: "Africa is perhaps the very last ancient theater of today, where tragedy and the stakes of power unfurl in a raw, frontal and eminently visual manner."

Lacôte conveys that rawness by using cinematography and blocking to dissolve the distinction between storyteller and audience. Not only is the camera constantly moving, showing us reactions to the twists and turns of Roman's story, but the inmates become actors. When Roman mentions a scorpion, they mime a scorpion; when he evokes the famous outlaw Zama King, they sing a dirge for the fallen gang leader. What might have been a stagy framing device becomes an immersive, multilayered tragedy.

With its crimson moon and animals that wait outside in the jungle to receive the souls of the dead (Blackbeard plans to return as a doe), the frame story is actually more enthralling than Roman's tale. But then, you try telling a story under the threat of death. The audience of convicts may be receptive, but it's also easily bored and full of tart critiques, forcing Roman to think fast and change tactics under pressure.

By elevating the sordid story of Zama King to the level of myth, Roman performs an artistic alchemy — and, more importantly, he gets lucky. The film's muted ending leaves us with no illusions about the power of human creativity to prevent history from happening in all of its violence. Sometimes the most our ingenuity can do, Lacôte suggests, is help us survive to the end of the night.

If you like this, try...

Atlantics (2019; Netflix): Mati Diop's drama from Senegal, a contender for the Cannes Film Festival Palme d'Or, weaves supernatural elements into the story of a woman torn between a rich fiancé and a mysterious lover.

The Burial of Kojo (2018; Netflix): A rural girl travels through the spirit realm to save her father from death in this film from Ghana that was honored at New York's Urbanworld Film Festival.

The Inheritance (2020; VTIFF Virtual Cinema through April 15): Part documentary, part scripted drama, Ephraim Asili's acclaimed film traces the evolution of a community of young Black artists and activists in West Philadelphia.

The original print version of this article was headlined "Night of the Kings"