Wednesday, February 24, 2021

A compelling journey inside an African prison

    In Night of the Kings, the inmates definitely have taken over the asylum.
    In this case, the asylum is a prison in Cote d'Ivoire (The Ivory Coast). It doesn't take long for director Philippe Lacote to let us know that La Maca is a place no one would want to land.
   Run by an ailing tyrant named Blackbeard (Steve Tientcheu), the prison environment resembles a corrupt kingdom in which the prisoners become servants of the iron-fisted Blackbeard.
    The story begins when a new prisoner (Bakary Kone) arrives. Needing to buy time for himself and his throne, Blackbeard immediately targets Kone's character as a storyteller. He gives him the name Roman and tells him that must entertain the prisoners throughout the night of the Red Moon. If he tires or falls short before sunrise, it's curtains.
   The story's structure riffs on Scheherazade in One Thousand One Nights but emerges as a movie with a voice all its own.
   Night of the Kings operates on two levels. First, it's a scary look at a prison where the guards pay little attention to anything. Life is cheap and an atmosphere of threat hovers over everything.  Because Blackbeard's illness is terminal, various factions vie to take over when he finally dies.
   Then there's the story that Kone's character tells, a tale of a young street thief named Zama King. The story takes the shape of a time-shattering folk tale. The early part of Zama's story visits an ancient kingdom and the story's second half lodges in an impoverished section of Abidjan. 
   Lacote films the storytelling with particular attention to the increasingly involved audience, which chants, acts out sections of the drama, and generally becomes part of the story. 
    The actors bring a level of theatrical energy to the storytelling that might have been too much were it not so effective. It's not difficult to imagine Night of the Kings as a compelling piece of theater.
    Like its actors, the movie has a distinctly powerful presence you won't soon forget.

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