Reel Reviews | Night of Kings (Sundance ’21)

by Charles Kirkland, Jr.

A new prisoner is caught in the middle of a prison power struggle in a drama from the Ivory Coast, Night of the Kings.

Deep in the forest of the Ivory Coast is a prison called “La Maca.” Where most prisons are ruled by the warden and the guards, La Maca is run by the prisoners. One day before the red moon night, a new prisoner (Bakary Koné) is chosen by Blackbeard (Steve Tientcheu), the dying leader of the facility, to be the new “Roman” and charged with telling a story to the other prisoners for the night. While the story is important, the truth behind the story is even more critical. Who will survive the night of the Roman?

Written and directed by Philippe Lacôte (Run), Night of the Kings is his second narrative feature-length film after having completed half a dozen shorts and a documentary (Chronicles of War in the Ivory Coast). Night is also the official entry for the Ivory Coast for Oscar consideration in the Best International Feature Film category. Kings stars Tientcheu (Les Misérables), newcomer Koné, veteran actor Denis Lavant, and Issaka Sawadogo.

The power of a good story is the focus of the movie. In truth, it is vital for a good movie to have a good story. Unfortunately, for Roman, he is not proficient in telling a story and is thrust into the role without any experience. Unfortunately for the viewers, the story of the movie reflects the incoherent, almost non-sensical story of the Roman with a tale that seems aimless at worst and pointless at best.

The saving grace for this movie is the creative vision of the director. Lacôte does a great job of presenting the grimy, mean grittiness of the prison, La Maca with all of its palpable lunacy. Yet, as the Roman relates his tale, Lacôte transports the prisoners (and the viewers) into a lavish, colorful dream-like fantasy world. It is a beautiful world where it is easy to see why the prisoners are so desperate to hear Roman’s tale. Sadly, we don’t spend enough time in this world and we spend way too much time in the gritty prison world. It’s a purposefully ugly and unsettling world that has chaos pouring down the walls. Not a lot of fun to watch.

Night of the Kings is not yet rated by the Motion Picture Association of America but would most likely receive an “R” rating due to profane language, violence, and mature themes. It is a sophomoric effort from Lacôte that despite the prowess of the actors, falls because of the ironic lack of good storytelling.

Grade: C-