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Movie review: Jungle prison-set 'Night of the Kings' unleashes layers of legend, lore and the power of storytelling

Katie Walsh, Tribune News Service on

Published in Entertainment News

In writer/director Philippe Lacôte’s astonishing film “Night of the Kings,” a young man (Bakary Koné) walks into a notorious jungle prison, MACA, with its own systems of law and order. Over the course of one night, he will have to step into his own untapped power to survive, becoming a storyteller at the behest of Blackbeard (Steve Tientcheu), the Dangôro, or leader of the inmates. While the inmates gather and the guard shelter, the warden intones that this is the only prison in the world run by an inmate. What unfolds is an event, and a film, wholly singular and unique, a blend of the ancient and the modern, a cinematic snapshot of a nation’s history within this self-contained film.

“Night of the Kings” is the Ivory Coast’s submission for the Best International Feature Oscar, with a place on the Academy’s shortlist for nominations. It’s Lacôte’s second film to earn the honor, as his 2014 film “Run” was also selected to represent the West African nation. He packs an an incredible amount of character development and world-building into the 92-minute run time of “Night of the Kings,” which is a relatively simple setup that unfolds layers and layers of lore, legend, spirituality and political context in this film that takes place over one night, in one setting.

When this young man enters MACA, he is immediately designated the “Roman,” or the storyteller, for a long, ritualistic night of oration. His role is part of an intricate web of hierarchies in the prison. At the top is Blackbeard, who gives Roman his role. Blackbeard is sick and presumably dying, and as prison custom dictates, the Dangôro is impelled to kill himself when he’s too sick to lead. A power struggle has erupted over his successor, and Blackbeard’s calling of the Night of the Roman is a stalling tactic, one last time for him to wield his power.

Blackbeard’s loyal lieutenant, Half-Mad (Jean Cyrille Digbeu) serves as the emcee, and hopes to be named successor. Lass (Abdoul Karim Konaté) is the would-be usurper, hoping to grasp Blackbeard’s power for his own profit. There’s Sexy (Gbazi Yves Landry), the sex worker and seductress, and Silence (Denis Lavant), the one white man, who warns Roman of his fate if he finishes speaking before sunrise. The architecture of the prison, a mysterious hook and the horde of inmates loom menacingly before Roman, demanding a tale to sate their hunger for story, ritual and potentially, blood.

As Roman tentatively takes his place at the center of the crowd and lifts his soft voice, the evening becomes a participatory blend of pep rally and preaching, peppered with improvisational dance, song, chanting, taunting and prayers. Lit by overhead fluorescent bulbs and a gas lamp, Roman, who was raised by his griot aunt in the slum of Lawless Quarter, taps into his heritage and tells the story of Zama King, the leader of his gang, the Microbes (a reference to the Brazilian film “City of God,” he mentions). Roman spins a yarn, frequently interrupted by meals or murder, wrapped in myth, fantasy and the turbulent recent political history of the Ivory Coast. His only goal is to make it through the night.

What happens in “Night of the Kings” is a piece of traditional oration and impermanent art, significantly marked by both its temporal and improvisational qualities. It’s both a power struggle and a ritual practiced by the collective within a microcosm of society housed under the oppression of the state, and a powerful demonstrating the transporting, and liberating, power of narrative.

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‘NIGHT OF THE KINGS’

4 stars

Cast: Bakary Koné, Steve Tientcheu, Denis Lavant.

Directed by Philippe Lacôte.

Running time: 1 hour, 32 minutes.

In select theaters Friday and on VOD March 5.

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