Nestled deep in the lush forest of the Ivory Coast, there is a prison like no other. Its name is La Maca, where the inmates play by their own rules,creating a whole new world. This unique setting sets the stage for Night of the Kings, directed by Philippe Lacôte. But Lacôte’s vision extends far beyond its walls in this strikingly ambitious sophomore feature.
We enter La Maca through the eyes of one of its newest inmates (played by Bakary Koné). Terrified upon his arrival to his imposing new home – the country’s largest prison – he is quickly thrust into the limelight. He learns of the established customs, whereby the appointed leader Blackbeard is tasked with several important duties. As his health is fading, Blackbeard must soon sacrifice his own life to make way for his successor. But first, he must choose a storyteller to perform during the next red moon. Unfortunately for our protagonist, this role is bestowed on him and he is given the name Roman. And as the new Roman, he must devise a story to last until sunrise if he hopes to survive the night.
La Maca is certainly no place for the weak, bearing the foreboding sense of dread common to most prison dramas. There are rival factions plotting violence, exploitative sexual relations and a general sense that each day could be your last. Indeed, Lacote reaps maximum tension from both the quiet and rowdier scenes.
But Night of the Kings diverges from the typical prison narratives upon the nightfall of the red moon. As Roman begins to tell his story, La Macca transforms into something akin to a thriving underground art scene. Incorporating spoken word, dance and song to accentuate the tale, Lacôte showcases Africa’s rich oral traditions to mesmerizing effect. Indeed, their resourceful creativity and communal energy brings to mind the makeshift families and distinctive artistry of New York’s ballroom scene.
The similar outcast sensibility is underlined further in Roman’s story within the story, which hints at some of the socio-political factors that contribute to incarceration. But this is just one tangent in a slightly disjointed subplot which at once incorporates majestic fables with a touch of magic, and more realist scenes about the country’s war-torn state. As we are introduced to a whole new host of characters and themes outside of the prison storyline, audiences may therefore find it hard to grasp all the events unfolding within the film’s lean 93 minutes. But when there’s so much stunning creativity and imagination on display, it’s almost impossible to avert your eyes from this visionary work of African art.