Night of the Kings focuses on a night and a day in a maximum security prison in Ivory Coast. While a token force of guards remain, the prison is really run by its king, Blackbeard. In this brutal, modern setting, the most traditional of stories plays out – an ailing king is falling, his princes vie for his crown, and to stave off oncoming death and war, he holds a night of ritual storytelling. A new inmate is picked to be storyteller, and his life and the king’s, and maybe everyone else’s as well, relies on keeping his story going until dawn.
Exquisite cinematography combines with evocative design to create this world, a city within a jail within a jungle, just as the film is about stories within stories. The sound and music transport and punctuation journeys through the prison and through the stories. A Thousand and One Nights meets the griot tradition as the storyteller’s voice calls out, and the audience respond, and some in the crowd participate in acting out, dancing, and enhancing the story.
The storyteller, Roman, tries to tell the story of his friend, Zama King, a street gangster who is caught and killed by a mob on the day Roman is arrested. In it, he tries to weave it together with ancient fairytales of sorcerer kings and queens, tying his short, violent life to the history and mythology of his country. As he does so, he tries to reach back to the falteringly remembered traditions of the griot, striving to recall from before his life as a thief.
So much is done in this movie with so little. The use of the space to give a sense to a sprawling, cut-throat city, within prison walls half lost already to the encircling jungle. The ability to convey an impending sense of threat and danger with very little actual violence. It’s amazing how breathlessly merciless the world feels, when so little takes place on screen. Roman asks what awaits him at the end of the evening’s entertainment, and is told to look up the stairs, where a hook hangs from the ceiling. The implication and dread don’t need anything more explicit than that. When Zama King is captured by the mob, in a crescendo of anger, you only see them put the tyre around his neck, then you see flames from behind the backs of the crowd, and don’t need to see more. A lot is down with very little.
The only thing I’ll say is, I would have liked the ending to have been more rounded, pulling more together from the threads within and without the stories. But it ends, as everything in this world ends, punctured by loud, bright, violence. And the abruptness of that, the lack of satisfaction in that, kinda reflects the lives of the people this film is about. It is Zama King, dead at 19. It is the inmates, who live in brutal conditions where the threat of death is ever-present. It is the story of revolution and war in Ivory Coast where the satisfying ending to its story is lost in unfinished and unfinishing violence.