Review: ‘Night of the Kings,’ starring Bakary Koné, Steve Tientcheu, Jean Cyrille Digbeu, Abdoul Karim Konaté and Laetitia Ky

April 6, 2021

by Carla Hay

Koné Bakary (center) and Anzian Marcel (holding lamp) in “Night of the Kings” (Photo courtesy of Neon)

“Night of the Kings”

Directed by Philippe Lacôte

French with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in the Ivory Coast prison of MACA, the dramatic film “Night of the Kings” features a nearly all-black African cast of characters (with one white person) who are prisoners, prison employees or imagined African royalty.

Culture Clash: During a powers struggle in the prison, a young man is chosen by the inmate leaders to entertain the prisoners by telling a story as part of a ritual.

Culture Audience: “Night of the Kings” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in African cinema and stories about prison subcultures that are rarely told in narrative feature films.

Steve Tientcheu in “Night of the Kings” (Photo courtesy of Neon)

“Night of the Kings” is set in a prison, but the film is more about the freedom of imagination under oppressive conditions. It’s probably one of the more unique prison movies ever made. But much like a stylistic fever dream, not all of the storyline will be easy to follow for people who prefer more straightforward narratives. “Night of the Kings” (written and directed by Philippe Lacôte) is still riveting cinema for people who appreciate filmmaking that doesn’t follow all the usual clichés of movies that are set in a prison.

That’s because the Ivory Coast prison where the movie takes place is MACA (also known as La Maca), a facility for male inmates that is said to be the only prison in the world unofficially run by the inmates, according to prison warden Nivaquine (played by Issaka Sawadogo). The prison guards and other employees just watch the inmate spectacles and stay alert for any violence that might break out. Inside MACA, like any other prison, there is a hierarchy.

According to the production notes for “Night of the Kings,” the real MACA (where exterior scenes for the movie were filmed) has a racially diverse population. The MACA shown in this movie consists almost entirely of black Africans, with a mute, middle-aged white prisoner named Silence (played by Denis Lavant), who is depicted as an eccentric who likes to carry a chicken on his shoulder.

The MACA prisoners walk around freely without shackles or handcuffs. And the main reason why they’re kept under control is because the prison guards have guns, while the prisoners do not. However, that doesn’t mean that violence can’t erupt any any given time.

In the beginning of the movie, a written intro is shown to explain the MACA power structure and traditions: “The MACA prison is a world with its own codes and laws. The first law is that the Dangôro, the supreme master, rules the prisoners. When the Dangôro falls ill and can no longer govern, he must take his own life.”

In this movie, the ailing Dangôro is named Blackbeard, or Barbe Noir (played by Steve Tientcheu), who has two prisoners competing to replace him: coldly calculating Lass (played by Abdoul Karim Konaté) and impulsive hothead Half-Mad, also known as Demi-Fou (played by Jean Cyrille Digbeu). In an early scene in the movie, Blackbeard (whose ailment isn’t described, but he wears an oxygen mask) has a verbal confrontation with Lass, who doesn’t try to hide that he’s impatient to take control of the prison.

Blackbeard warns Lass, “If you keep disrespecting me, Lass, you’ll lose your protection. If you lose my protection, you’ll be another lackey.” Lass replies, “You’re asking for a war. Open your eyes, Blackbeard. And look around. You’re not in charge anymore.” An offended Blackbeard yells at Lass, “Shut up!”

Whenever there is a rising red moon, the MACA tradition is to choose a prisoner to tell a story to the rest of the inmates. This storyteller is called a Roman. Blackbeard announces that he’s going to announce a new Roman for the upcoming rising red moon.

And new Roman (played by Bakary Koné) is also a new prisoner. He’s a 19-year-old pickpocket, and his real name is never revealed in the story. He is just called Roman. When Roman arrives in Nivaquine’s prison warden office, Nivaquine interrogates him and slaps him. In the office, Roman notices a magazine with a cover headline that reads “War Against the Microbes.” This magazine cover later gives him the inspiration for the story that he tells the prisoners.

When Roman finds out that he’s been chosen to tell the story, he’s treated almost like a hero and lifted on the shoulders of the other inmates. Roman also meets a potential friend in the shower area named Razor Blade, also known as Lame de Rasoir (played by Macel Anzian), who’s around the same age. Razor Blade is a self-described street kid who used to work on a cocoa plantation near Tiassalé.

But it’s not all camaraderie in this prison. A transgender female prison named Sexy (played by Gbazi Yves Landry) is sexually harassed and cornered by several of the inmates. One prisoner named Koby (played by Stéphane Sebime) is particularly aggressive to Sexy and it’s implied that it’s because she is transgender. And later, a near-riot breaks out as prisoners express their loyalties to Lass or Half-Mad.

The only thing that brings some peace and distraction to this discord is Roman’s captivating storytelling. The inmates gather around Roman as he weaves this tale. It’s here in the movie that “Night of the Kings” starts to resemble live theater, with the prisoners sometimes chiming like a Greek chorus or sometimes dancing in unison.

Roman’s story is about he grew up with Zama King, the king of the Microbes, whom Roman says he met because they went to the same school together. Roman begins by invoking some religious preaching: “If God says you’ll be a thief, you’ll be a thief. If God says you’ll be a murderer, you’ll be a murderer. If God says yea, no one can say no.” He calls himself a “pickpocket, a swindler, shyster, scoundrel, a real thief.”

Roman then spins a tale about how he grew up with his aunt Salimata, a traditional griot. Through re-enactments that re shown in the movie, Roman then goes on to describe how Zama King’s father Soni (played by Rasmané Ouédraogo) was a beggar and how Soni’s relationship developed with the women who wife Hélène (played by Marie-Josée Néné). Roman also tells the story of the Queen (played by Laetitia Ky), who would rise to power with Zama King.

Much of “Night of Kings” depends on the charisma of Roman, who has command of the room but also knows that he’s making a lot of things up as he goes along and that the crowd could easily turn on him if they become bored or skeptical of his story. Bakary Koné makes an admirable acting debut in “Night of the Kings.” His performance seems natural in a way that perhaps might have been too polished if the role went to a more experienced actor.

With “Night of the Kings,” Lacôte has creatively crafted a story within a story, but is not a perfect film since some of the editing choices could have been better. As Roman tells his tale of power struggle in the world of Zama King, the MACA prison is undergoing its own conflicts over power. Roman learns how to express himself as an individual and how the power of storytelling can bring people together. Regardless of how the movie turns out, viewers are left with the feeling Roman has a new appreciation for freedom of personal expression, and this knowledge will stay with him, whether he’s kept behind prison walls or not.

Neon released “Night of the Kings” in select U.S. cinemas on February 26, 2021, and on VOD on March 5, 2021.