Somewhere nestled into the thick rainforest of Abidjan in Cote D’ivoire stands MACA (Maison d’Arrêt et de Correction), a sprawling prison where the inmates most definitely hold more power than the guards. Fundamentally hierarchical and in a constant power struggle, MACA is home to a self-governing community of fantasizers. Their ability to form rich oral traditions and navigate the harshness of their environment with the depths of their expression portrays the prison as a self-contained world.
Formed around the ruling word of Blackbeard (Steve Tientcheu), whose rapidly deteriorating health could throw the rule of law of MACA into a fracas, Philippe Lacote’s masterful Night of the Kings centers on the community of inmates, men who come together to form their own rich world of tradition and conduct, having been justly cut off from the real world far beyond their cells. Set during the time of Laurent Gbagbo’s ousting as president and the civil war, the colony of dreamers locked up in MACA feel poignantly far removed from the ongoing strife reshaping their country.
The film concerns a spiritual tradition of storytelling that the prison takes part in whenever a red moon rises. Needing a new “Roman” (storyteller), Blackbeard appoints the latest arrival, a petty thief (Bakary Koné), as their new harbinger of tales, whose role is to entertain the prison population with a story of his choosing so long as the red moon is in the sky. With no choice and fearing for his safety in the strange ecosystem of MACA, Roman spins an epic yarn of King Zama, a rebel warrior and crime kingpin (who Roman possibly knew personally) who was born to a blind mystic in the 19th century and rose to power in the present-day slums before being murdered in the street. As he weaves this tapestry that soon incorporates the very forming of the country through magic-wielding kings and queens, the community surrounding Roman participates with it in wonderfully choreographed and vividly directed sequences.
They cheer on Roman. They insult and deny his claims. They break out into chorus like singing commenting on the story. They dance and act out aspects of the story. The ecstatic and vivacious manner in which Lacote captures this cultivated oral culture behind the reinforced walls of MACA is truly something special and absorbing to behold.
Flirting with magical realist elements, both within the story spun by Roman and the ethereal vibe given off from MACA’s idiosyncratic machinations (such as Blackbeard believing that, when his time comes, he will descend into a pit of water beneath the prison and be reincarnated as a deer just outside the walls), the film remains imaginative but never truly escapist or frivolous with its high-concept approach. In one breathtaking chapter of Roman’s story, captured in stunning cinematography, two nobles engage in a “magical duel” where they conjure transmogrifying beasts and float high above the ground. Coupled with the enraptured way in which Lacote shoots, the film feels exuberant and free despite how greatly captivity hangs over the narrative.
Yet, the harshness of their reality is never truly excised in the fantastical digressions that Night of the Kings engages in. MACA is no less intimidating despite its deep interior world, as the risk of a riotous collapse or a sudden, bloody seizing of power from a rival prison gang weighs heavily on the narrative. And despite the fanciful storytelling practices of the inmates, the film doesn’t close itself off from the violent reshaping of Cote D’Ivoire as it subtly bleeds through the film’s veneer of thin fantasy.
While Night can feel rapturous in the powerful manner in which it presents storytelling, it nevertheless is aware of the limits these flights of fancy can do for someone behind bars. The sudden flashes of violence and the tragic climax to the film being sobering testaments to that fact.
Transportive and lively, Night of the Kings is a unique vision of escapism, worldbuilding and myth-making when curtailed away from the hummings of the real world. Told with such imagination and compassion by its writer-director and though such spellbinding filmmaking, this one is an absolute must-see.