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Doing Storytime

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MOVIE REVIEW
Night of the Kings (2021)

In appearance and execution, “Night of the Kings” makes it clear audiences underestimate it at their own risk. The set-up is direct: La MACA is a prison in the middle of the Côte d’Ivorian jungle, and while it’s led by head guard Nivaquine (Issaka Sawadogo), it’s run by its prisoners, of whom Blackbeard (Steve Tientcheu) is the chief. But Blackbeard is sick, and according to the prison’s laws, a sick chief must kill himself to make way for a stronger successor. But Blackbeard is not quite ready to die. He’s allowed to buy time by nominating a prisoner as a storyteller, someone to distract the prisoners from the impeding war while negotiations take place. When a wide-eyed young man in a yellow t-shirt is driven alone through the gates, Blackbeard nominates him as Roman (French for novel; played by Bakary Koné). There are a thousand men who will kill him if he gets it wrong.

Writer-director Philippe Lacôte is clearly soaked in world cinema. The famous gang to which Roman belongs is called The Microbes, and it’s explicitly named after one of the gangs in “City of God.” Roman’s entry into the prison is reminiscent of “A Prophet,” and some shots of the prisoners gathered in their courtyard imply they’ve all seen “The Raid 2” as well. But while that might be a little pandering to the international crowd, there’s only one white guy in the whole prison – Silence (Denis Lavant, the French Steve Buscemi), who has a pet chicken on his shoulder and quickly becomes Roman’s guide. But he’s not Roman’s only friend – a young man (Marcel Anzian) startles Roman in the outdoor shower, laughs, and says, “Relax, I’m Razorblade.” But while a less relaxing introduction is hard to imagine, it’s Razorblade who holds the lantern as Roman gets on a soapbox and begins to talk for his life.

Roman’s time in the Microbes meant he was witness to the life of a notorious young gangster, Zama (Oscar Goneti), whose gory exploits everyone is keen to hear firsthand. But Roman was also raised by a griot, which means he knows what he’s doing. There are clearly rules at play here in how a story is told, and the prisoners gather around and participate in the telling – for example, when a scorpion is mentioned, men leap forward and embody the scorpion themselves, as if in a dance (the choreography by Laurent N’zi is somehow both highly stylized and very naturalistic; it adds to the sense that everyone in the prison knows rules we don’t). There is also intrigue in the dark corners, mostly between the only transgender prisoner Sexy (Yves Landry Gbazi), Blackbeard’s main rival Lass (Abdoul Karim Konaté), and Demi-fou (Jean Cyrille Digbeu), who is playing his own game. The camera is rarely still as it swoops around the prison halls, but Aube Foglia’s editing keeps the action clear and sharp. While the prison is split into sections several stories high, around a covered courtyard where everyone eats, you know where the main players are at all times.

Mr. Tientchieu and Mr. Konaté are superb as a wounded old bear and a chained tiger waiting to pounce, respectively. They are all menace and teeth, and as the night unspools death comes from unexpected directions. Mr. Koné is not quite strong enough an actor to give nuance to Roman’s tales, but there is so much else going on it hardly matters. The stories of Zama’s life also take us outside of the prison, most viscerally in the hideous sequence in the lawless quarter of Abidjan, all mud and boneyard, as a young albino woman calls death from the clear sky. There’s also a wholly original battle that Roman insists Zama witnessed as a young boy, when two armies stand by and watch their leaders – a younger brother trying to usurp his sister the queen (Laetitia Ky) – fight entirely with magic. But whether the stories are old folk tales, or brutal crimes freshly witnessed, Mr. Lacôte’s direction combines everyday realism with stylized horror. And when an important player is underestimated by everyone, it gives the ending genuine surprise. This is a powerful and affecting film about the games people play to get and keep their power; and while violence is one part, stories are the just as important other.

N.B.: It’s a shame the street gang whose members are called Pythagoras, Blackie and Double Trouble is only mentioned in passing.

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