In the gritty, magical world of Night of the Kings, a story about stories shows us how deprived people can still create communities rich in personal meaning.
It’s not often that a film can inspire simultaneous senses of hardship and beauty without dipping into the easy tropes of factory-made melodrama. Night of the Kings has met that challenge and then some. Through a gripping plot, moving performances, intimate cinematography, and elaborate production design, writer-director Philippe Lacôte and crew transport us into worlds of majesty and squalor that frame a socially conscious tale about whether or not we can salvage our humanity and identity despite our circumstances.
At the onset, I feel I must admit a bias toward enjoying stories about stories, but Night of the Kings boasts the narrative craft to engage anyone. The premise sets the stage both figuratively and literally in a thespian space that harks to storybook history (being a reference to “One Thousand and One Nights”). A nameless teenager (the starring and debut role of Bakary Koné) has just been dropped off at an infamous all-male prison complex (MACA) in Ivory Coast, where the inmates run the show. The current community leader is a hardened man named “Blackbeard” (Steve Tientcheu, of Les Misérables (2019)), whose rapidly fading health has the prison hungry for new leadership. Wary of the blood-thirst feeding from and encouraging his approaching death, Blackbeard tabs the anonymous teen as the next “Roman,” a griot-like persona whose responsibility is to entertain the masses with a story until the next morning, or become the sacrifice the prison craves.
What keeps the already-stimulating scenario grounded are the subtleties of surviving incarceration expressed by the main cast, while the film is elevated into theatrical splendor by way of the impressive performances of dancers, orators, and singers. Most every actor has few if any credits to their name in the feature film zeitgeist, but that doesn’t stop them from turning out entrancing displays of live dancing portrayals of a newly revealed character, academic critiques of the narrative, folk poetry, and a cappella improvisations to accompany the increasingly tall tale told by Roman. I had goose-bumps while watching the men create these morsels of personal expression with their bodies and voices, as each iteration revealed a rich interior world that is otherwise silenced in these unforgiving circumstances. The inmates’ active participation adds equally haunting and lovely colors to the story within the story, and Lacôte does well to let these moments breathe with their inherent grace.
That of course is largely thanks to the skilled cinematography teams, who nailed Lacôte’s hefty visual plans and shifting tone. The lighting is exceptional for casting a natural feeling through clever use of the sun, moon, flimsy tungsten bulbs, and flaming torches. The resulting sense of realism is reinforced by the consistent long shots of group activities that show the sheer scale of and connectedness in the prison community, and these long shots foreground punctuation by visually dynamic scenes of strife and relief. In moments of anxiety or intensity, such as two feuding camps hyping each other up before a brawl, the shots switch to wide-angle close-ups that place the viewer right in the action, so close that even the most dangerous situation appeals to an endearing proximity to unbridled spirit. Then, in calmer moments, the camera deftly glides through the labyrinthian prison halls as well as the equally treacherous outside world with fluid handheld precision for a soothing break from the normally tense atmosphere.
Yet, the true burden of atmosphere was the production design’s to bear, and it was perhaps the most exceptional technical aspect of the film. You know that feeling when a landscape is so gorgeous you have to admire it? When an image is so powerful you simply have to stop and breathe it in? I cherish that experience in a movie theater, but even from my living room at home, the experience is possible. It takes rare pictures like Night of the Kings to truly capture the breathtaking qualities of natural environments. In the same way many of the performers were locals finally able to showcase their raw capabilities, many of the on-screen spaces are on-location. That’s challenging-enough logistically, but the art teams and set dressers further amplify their captivating locations with evocative prison adornments from the inmates’ personal lives, beautiful traditional architecture and villages in dreamlike storybook sequences, and detritus cluttering the streets of the busted-up real world.
It is by this tragic flux between storybook escapism and real-world reminders that Lacôte’s masterful direction reveals the integral historical context of his film – a nation torn by political infighting and civic unrest -, and it is the strategy he uses to tie together all these remarkable attributes with strong gravitas. However glorious are the meditative and soul-stirring embellishments that the prisoners employ to make their harsh lives livable, there is still a brutal awakening for anyone who matriculates into their system, as does Roman: personal truth is hard to establish, and hard to maintain. Roman comes to understand this most innately human struggle for identity and expression, and Lacôte makes sure we leave the viewing experience knowing the MACA community stands as a metaphor for what oppression and deprivation do to the human soul, which, sadly, is a reality faced by Ivorian citizens, and many peoples across the world.
Thus Night of the Kings is a socially and cinematically savvy work of art that demands attention for its storytelling qualities, as well as its call to a global conscience. In its depiction of people making the most of what little they have, we can find inspiration to do so ourselves, while remembering few of us are ever so fortunate to survive for the chance, and fewer are able to comprehend such luck.
Night of the Kings was released in select theaters and virtual cinemas on February 26, 2021, and is now available to watch on digital and on demand.
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