The Soaring Legend of Philippe Lacôte's "Night of the Kings"
12th September 2021
By Grace Coletta Feinmann
Philippe Lacôte’s The Night of the Kings (La Nuit des Rois) unravels with the urgency of anarchic survival and mythic ties. Cuffed to the back of truck and driven into a calamitous yard, our young protagonist arrives to the formidable MACA prison, isolated deep in the forest off the Ivory Coast. Not a typical prison, MACA is run with greater order than the dilapidated and resigned guards could ever dream of commanding. MACA is under the rule of the Dangoro, a position currently held by inmate Blackbeard. The Dangoro rules the prison with unwavering authority however, as his health falters, his power wanes. Faced with the tradition of prison myth and rule, he must secede by taking his own life.
In a bid for more time, and at the temptation of more bloodshed, Blackbeard takes the arrival of our young prisoner as the arrival of his momentary saviour, a storyteller. Under the impending red moon, Blackbeard invokes the night of the Roman. In a world dictated by legend and tradition, MACA’s newest inmate is elected into a role that forces him to unwittingly play a twisted part in Blackbeard’s fearsome game. Unsure of what is expected of him yet terrified of the alternative consequence, he begins a story.
As we descend deeper into the night of the red moon, the stakes rise as other inmates vie for the control of the prison, and the Roman slowly realises the consequence of finishing his story. Spinning a tale of family, fear and legend, the unnamed inmate captivates the imagination of both audiences. In an unsure voice that cuts through the orchestral low score and murmurs of the crowd, he tells of the Zama King, a figure seemingly larger than life.
His story come to life as the prison courtyard transforms into a stage, with the surrounding inmates evoking his words through dance, movement and song that continues through the night. Just as the MACA is run by the strength of legacy, the mythic has an established place in this world, and our Roman’s story tells of warring Kings and Queens, fearsome beasts, and ancient powers of fire and air. Fact and fiction blur in the boy’s stuttering tale. As the prisoner hierarchy wars around him, we come to slowly piece together the intersecting narratives of Lacote’s twist of historical allegory and hyper-masculine bonds.
The film is a mix of painful history, fantasy and soaring legend. The constructions of linear time and truth no longer take precedent as imagination rules. Night of the Kings stands as a contemporary thriller with Ivorian storytelling at its heart. Lacôte disregards convention and rule. Rather than scenes of gratuitous violence and bloodshed, the men of MACA express their anguish, frustration and hunger through movement and rhythm. An array of bodies fills the screen in its deep colour palate and cinematographic edge, making the film a thrilling marriage of magical realism and gruesome reality.
The Roman’s voice and strange magic casts a spell on audiences alike in the prison yard and cinema. We hold our breath, fearing the fate of everyone once his story ends.
Africa in Motion audiences can still watch the film with a 10% discount courtesy of Altitude.