“Night of the Kings”: Reflecting on the Place and Potency of Stories – Joseph Omoh Ndukwu
Philippe Lacôte’s Night of the Kings (French: La Nuit des Rois) wastes little time in bringing us into the heart of its story.
“My children, I am naming a new Roman, a new storyteller,” says Blackbeard (Steve Tientcheu), the prison leader—the Dangôro—at the beginning of the film to Lass (Abdoul Karim Konaté) and his gang, a dissenting prison faction who have come to challenge his reign.
Blackbeard is ill and has to breathe with the aid of an oxygen tank which he carries about with him. The law of the prison is clear: Once the Dangoro can no longer govern, he must take his own life. But Blackbeard, a huge, proud man who, despite his failing health, still moves about with an imperious air, decides on one last gambit to keep things under his control a little longer—he invokes Night of Roman. On this night, marked by the rising of a red moon, an inmate is selected to tell the prisoners stories all night.
MACA, a prison complex in a forest clearing near Abidjan, Ivory Coast, is the setting for the film’s central action. A newcomer (Bakary Koné) arrives at the prison. Timid and afraid, he is herded by a frenzied crowd up the stairs where he meets with Blackbeard, who asks him to tell a story. Just as he begins telling it, Blackbeard announces, “He is the one. He is our Roman.”
Immediately, the inmates begin hailing him, and then they carry him to a room where they feed him and tell him what is expected of him, leaving no doubt as to what would happen to him if he fails to comply. Night of Roman—and its mortal consequence for the chosen Roman—is understood by all the inmates except the newcomer; its traditions and mythologies are built into the laws of MACA.
The mood is set. The air thickens. There is foreboding, expectation. The red moon appears in the sky. Roman is readied and led to the centre of a crowded hall lit by lanterns where he begins to tell his story. It is a highly fantastical account of the life of Zama King, the notorious leader of the Microbes, a crime ring that terrorized the streets of Abidjan in the early to mid-2010s. Roman tells his story with a blend of trepidation and confidence. This is where the film shines. Roman is scared; the crowd is menacing, but as he tells his story he loses more and more of his fear. He realizes that the story endows him with power, a hypnotizing control over his crowd, so he holds forth, taking us, in a non-linear narrative style, across wide reaches of periods and settings, from pre-colonial Ivory Coast when traditional kings and queens ruled to more modern times when civil unrest rocked the country, threatening Laurent Gbagbo’s administration.
The film is a classic Scheherazadean tale. During meal break, Silence (Denis Lavant), a curious figure with a chicken perched on his shoulder, informs Roman that he has to tell his story until morning if he hopes to stay alive. Lacôte, however, does more than pay homage to the old Arabian tale. By taking a wide sweep, the story makes a gesture as though to own all of history and keep storytelling alive as a site of constantly unfurling realities and discoveries. Throughout the telling of the story, the inmates dramatize certain segments with pantomime and haunting choruses. Some of these sections seem a little overdone and incredulous, seeing as their pantomime appears almost perfectly choreographed for a role they had had no prior preparation for. Yet, even as this is the case, the effect is not lost. These dramatic performances add further dimensions to the story, turning the oral into a moving, breathing thing.
Tobie Marier-Robitaille’s cinematography makes magic of these scenes. The strobe effects of the light and the muted play of shadows lend the entire spectacle a rich cinematic texture. Everything offers itself in service of the story.
The film’s investment in storytelling is deliberate, and sometimes overwhelming. The generous use of flashbacks and plot twists, the infusion of elements of magical realism, the employment of drama and chorus, the examination of current Ivorian political reality—all woven into a tale that is stretched to last all night—sets the film up as something we are, at best, only half-prepared for. This is not an unintended effect, for Lacôte, from the outset, aimed to make a film that is bold and fresh. “What’s most important for me is to make films within our culture, with our vision,” he explains elsewhere. With this film, he both draws on and honours Ivorian storytelling traditions as well as extends the legacy of the ancient griots of West Africa.
Lacôte’s deliberateness in handling his material and sources of inspiration becomes more evident when we realize how we have been made, quite gradually, to begin contemplating the place and power of stories in our lives. As the prisoners listen to the story of Zama King, we are one with them. Zama King is a notorious criminal, a scorpion, and he meets a violent death, but he is also a boy loved by his blind father, Soni (Rasmané Ouédraogo). Zama, in the story, is not stuck in a grim present; he is free to move to a past where he, alongside his father, is in the entourage of an impressive queen. It is not hard to see the appeal that this kind of freedom holds for the inmates, so that even while they know that the story is not true, they surrender themselves to it and allow it to own them for the span of the night. Everyone needs an alternate version of reality.
Night of the Kings doesn’t fail in walking this line between the comforting vistas of story and the hard insistence of reality. For we see that while Roman’s story is central, things are happening outside the ring where he tells it—a man, Koby (Stéphane Sebime), one of Blackbeard’s foremost supporters, is murdered, a fallout of the prison power tussle; Blackbeard accepts his fate. Silence wanders through the corridors and stairwells, eerie as he shambles along, like a man on a mysterious quest; Nivaquine (Issaka Sawadogo), the ineffectual warden, prowls his unkempt office, resenting Blackbeard, the inmates, and the entire set-up at MACA. All these help sustain the quiet tension as the film moves towards its final moments—things working their way toward their own resolutions.
At the end, Nivaquine fires into the crowd and the inmates scatter. Night of Roman is brought to an end, and an uneasy peace settles over the prison.
Joseph Omoh Ndukwu is a Nigerian writer and editor. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in the Prairie Schooner, Guernica, Saraba, Brittle Paper, and elsewhere. His essays also appear in A Long House, Rele Gallery’s book of young contemporary artists, Global Comment, and The Lagos Review. In 2017, he was nominated for the CIAPS Public Interest Essay Prize. He lives in Lagos, Nigeria.