Night of the Kings opens with an establishing shot of a concrete fortress in the middle of the jungle, the skyline of Abidjan — one of West Africa’s most massive urban agglomerations — just barely coming into view in the distant background. The rest of the film will unfold in that fortress, which is the MACA, the regional prison for Abidjan, Ivory Coast. The film is a fable, steeped in that heady brew of postcolonial hybridity — part indigenous African, part French; part mythical ancient past, part globalized and modernized late capitalism; part imagined timelessness and part keeping pace with technological change — that energizes much of the Global South. Where Night of the Kings really shines is in the way it centers the universality of ritual as a crucial communal human experience alongside the particularity of individual, personal self-interest as a metaphor for the state of Ivorian/West African society at large.

The MACA is a self-governed prison, run by the inmates in a complex web of hierarchical relationships. At the top is the brutal, terminally ill Blackbeard (Steve Tientcheu) whose reign is in its final moments, as the other inmates expect him to uphold tradition and commit suicide after securing the succession of power. But Blackbeard needs one more night and, fortunately, fate intervenes on his behalf. This very night is the night of the Red Moon, a rare occurrence that triggers a prison-wide communal ritual. The ritual is quite simple to understand: the prisoners will gather in the common room, where a specially-chosen inmate granted the title of “Roman” will take center stage and tell the assembled audience a story; the tale will last until dawn or the Roman will be thrust upon a sinister meat hook at the top of the stairs in the central sleeping quarters. Blackbeard’s Roman (Bakary Koné) was just brought to the prison this morning and does not really understand how the prison works or the parameters of the Red Moon ritual. But Roman does quickly come to realize that he needs to weave a narrative that lasts until dawn or he will not live to see the sun rise.

The film that unfolds from this premise is difficult to describe without ruining; the element of surprise is a crucial component of the viewer’s enjoyment. With that caveat, Night of the Kings is a delightful film both visually and narratively that vividly brings to life the character of the MACA prison and makes real for viewers who are unlikely to know anything about Ivory Coast something of the history, culture and urban geography of one of Francophone Africa’s most important nation-states.

There are several standout elements, both regarding the filmmaking and the film’s message. The grandest filmmaking achievement here is the way that the combination of staging, acting and cinematography brings to life each inmate shown in the frame as Roman stands in the center of the room telling his story. Each prisoner is a fleshed-out character, though most have one or even zero lines and are unnamed; they simply feel fully realized as people, mostly through the ways in which they interact with Roman’s storytelling ritual. Regarding the film’s message, Night of the Kings is one of the more sophisticated cinematic treatments of the topic of European colonialism around, on par with the best of Ousmane Sembéne’s works. It weaves Ivory Coast’s recent political violence — like most coastal West African countries, Ivory Coast has a Christian majority in the provinces near the sea where Europeans were influential and a Muslim majority in the less accessible interior where desert-traversing caravans from North Africa dominated for centuries and this sectarian divide bred civil war — into the imagined pre-colonial history of the land; Ivorians are yearning to be both liberal democrats with modernized views and values and powerful, rooted inheritors of a proud and magical past that signals their people’s historical greatness.

Night of the Kings is one of the more sophisticated cinematic treatments of the topic of European colonialism around, on par with the best of Ousmane Sembéne’s works.
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A Postcolonial Fable

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