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The Crack Magazine

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Night Of The Kings

Director: Philippe Lacôte

Stars: Bakaray Koné, Steve Tientcheu, Denis Lavant, Jean Cyrille Digue

A radical departure from normal prison movie fare, Ivory Coast writer-director Philippe Lacôte’s picture is a bold combination of West African griot storytelling tradition, dance, social realism and fantasy elements. The result is demanding but bracingly original.

Newcomer Koné is the unnamed young man just admitted to the La Maca prison complex situated in the dense Ivorian forest. The prison is run by the inmates replete with a ruler and attendant tiers, rivalries and power struggles.

The chief or Dangôro of the prison, the ailing inmate Blackbeard (Tientcheu) while contending with challenges to his leadership, appoints the new young inmate as ‘The Roman’, a designated storyteller required to spin a tale for the other prisoners over a chosen night. 

The Roman begins hesitantly to tell the story of the Zama King, the legendary outlaw and leader of the Microbes gang. During an interlude, The Roman is advised by fellow con, the sole white inmate, Silence (Lavant in typically fearless, oddball mode) to prolong the story as much as possible in order to stay alive. Hitting his narrative stride, The Roman backtracks the story to the Zama King’s early life and ancestry, inserting more mythical and fantastical elements. Some of his (ahem) captive audience join in, chanting and dancing to embellish the tale.

Lacôte, who as a child visited his incarcerated mother in the prison, makes few concessions to the uninitiated with his impressionistic depiction, and the Chinese box story layering, along with the allusions to recent Ivory Coast history, render this a challenging watch. Yet, take time to acclimatize to his vision and the film casts a disarmingly strange and delirious spell as cinematographer Tobie Marier Robitaille’s roving camera wanders the labyrinthine, shadowy prison confines, lighting up the inmates in beautiful golden and blue hues.

Night of the Kings is released 23rd July

David Willoughby

Follow David on @DWillCrackfilm

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