Int’l Critics Line: Anna Smith On Ivory Coast’s Oscar-Shortlisted ‘Night Of The Kings’

A prisoner becomes a storyteller in Night Of The Kings, Ivory Coast’s vivid International Feature Oscar shortlist selection written and directed by Philippe Lacôte (Run). Newcomer Bakary Koné stars as a pickpocket who arrives at La MACA, a notorious prison in the Ivorian forest. The guards barely have control, and the inmates have developed their own hierarchical system. Leader Blackbeard (Steve Tientcheu) declares that the new arrival will be a “Roman” (French for “novel”) and entertain the prisoners when the red moon rises. Gradually, “Roman” realizes that he must speak until the sun rises — or the cost will be his life.

It’s a compelling premise that blends relatively gritty prison drama with oral tradition and mysticism. Roman claims that he went to school with famed crime boss Zama King, and invents a backstory for him set in pre-colonial Africa. As he speaks, the camera periodically leaves the prison and shows his tale unfolding in the ancient landscape. Featuring legendary characters and elaborate costumes, this part is imaginative, but far less compelling than the activity in the prison itself.

The prison pecking order is revealed efficiently, as Lass (Abdoul Karim Konaté) nips at the heels of an ailing Blackbeard, who is expected to take his own life in the event of ill health. Actor Tientcheu played the Mayor in Ladj Ly’s Oscar nominated Les Misérables, and exudes a similar rough gravitas in this role. French actor Denis Lavant makes a surprising appearance as an eccentric misfit wafting on the sidelines with a parrot on his shoulder, whispering secrets to our hero. And a transgender inmate known as “Sexy” is memorably portrayed by Gbazi Yves Landry, who struts around the ramshackle prison in a leopard print dress and is objectified by the men.

There is an uncomfortable early scene in which Sexy has a bag put over her head and strips for the roaring crowd. But this doesn’t go down the usual route of detailing graphic sexual assaults behind bars. While there is violence, much of the power is conveyed through political mind games, and creative responses to crises.

Roman’s ability to craft an engaging story is key to his survival. As he speaks tentatively, standing on a small crate, the men gather and begin to play act, improvising dance and mime to reflect his narrative. It’s credit to Lacôte and crew that this feels credible, rather than simply theatrical, though it is also that. Many of the parts were street cast and include dancers, slammers, singers and martial artists, each bringing an individual flavor rather than a central-casting style. The sight of prisoners pirouetting and singing challenges archetypes in a faintly comical fashion, but it also suggests a wealth of talent lingering in prisons around the world.

As for La MACA, it’s a real penitentiary that Lacôte visited in his youth, and his attention to detail makes Night Of The Kings a fascinating watch. It is perhaps too short to fully explore the themes it raises, or even to fully explain them for a wide audience. But when the prisoners fall under the story’s spell, it’s magical stuff.

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