Of the three Ivory Coast submissions for the foreign language film Oscar over the years, two have been by the writer-director Philippe Lacôte: 2014’s Run, which was widely regarded as heralding an Ivorian film-making renaissance, and Night of the Kings (2020), one of 15 films shortlisted for the renamed best international feature award. A shapeshifting tale of incarceration and emancipation, it may have missed out on an Oscar nomination, yet its vivid, genre-fluid investigation of the alchemical art of storytelling definitely hits the mark.
In a remote clearing on the edge of Abidjan’s Banco forest stands the notorious Maison d’arrêt et de correction d’Abdijan – La Maca – an institution described by one of its keepers as “the only prison in the world run by an inmate”. A commanding aerial shot highlights the prison’s isolation, a brutal structure hidden by dense vegetation. Captions introduce us to “a world with its own codes and laws”, the first and foremost of which is that “the Dangôro, the supreme master, rules the prisoners”.
This is Barbe Noire – Blackbeard – an imposing godfather figure played by Steve Tientcheu, who made a lasting impression in Ladj Ly’s 2019 urban drama Les Misérables. Blackbeard’s health is failing, and soon he will have to bow to tradition and take his own life (“I will climb down and submerge myself in the water”). But first he has plans for one final prison ritual.
Enter screen newcomer Koné Bakary as the unnamed arrival whom we first meet handcuffed, under armed escort, circumnavigating the prison’s vast perimeter. A pickpocket with tales of the notorious Microbes gang leader Zama King, he now has the frightened expression of an innocent entering an alien world, the eerie drone of Olivier Alary’s score adding to the ghostly ambience. Once inside, a cacophony of pounding hands on iron grilles and cutlery clattering against cold steel bars evokes an abattoir-like image of a sacrificial lamb being led to the slaughter – a sense of dread heightened when the worryingly named Half-Mad declares that Blackbeard wants this new arrival delivered to his block. With a red moon approaching, Blackbeard has decided to anoint “a new Roman, a new storyteller”, and (for reasons that will only later become clear) this incomer has been deemed to be “the one … the prince without a kingdom”.
What follows is a strange blend of tough prison drama, historical allegory (pre- and post-colonial worlds pointedly collide) and theatrical performance piece, with mime, poetry, dance and oral history intertwined in a swirling cinematic maelstrom. From Blackbeard’s early assertion that “my spirit will become a doe, and I’ll roam the forest around the prison”, to incantatory outbursts of trance-like revelry that give way to elaborate visual inventions, harsh reality and vivid fantasy are locked in a frantic masked dance, with Denis Lavant’s holy fool Silence acting as a quasi-comic intermediary.
Lacôte traces his inspiration for this project back to childhood experiences of visiting his mother at La Maca, which left him with the fairytale sense of “being at the court of some archaic kingdom”. Fitting, then, that through the newcomer’s stories we see the life of gang leader Zama transformed from a blood-splattered headline into a mythical tale of grand queens and legendary beasts, played out as an hallucinogenic opera (plaudits to cinematographer Tobie Marier Robitaille) steeped in a childlike sense of wonder.
Narratively, that fable-like element links Night of the Kings back to the folkloric tales of One Thousand and One Nights, with the prison’s storyteller as a modern-day Schéhérezade, required to spin yarns for his life. While Lacôte reports that the Roman ritual was not a fiction but a fact of life at La Maca, the atmosphere he conjures is one of creation and invention. This portrayal of imprisonment may be authentically down to earth (Blackbeard’s rival Lass wants inmates to be managed “more rationally”, not as enslaved people but “customers”), but Night of the Kings proves most captivating in evoking the transformative power of the imagination.