‘Night of the Kings’ explores the rich traditions of African Culture

Occasionally, a movie comes along that fills the screen with magnificent visuals, thrills with charismatic actors and offers an engaging storyline. “Night of the Kings” is that movie.

A film which not only explores the rich traditions of African culture and delightfully delves into the rituals of oral storytelling, but it also gives viewers a glimpse into the political diatribes of Ivory Coast, a West African country which has been caught up in conflict for several years.

For director and documentarist Philippe Lacôte, it presented the opportunity to spotlight his country’s history, share Africa’s rich culture and spark a conversation on politics.

“We have this strong oral tradition and I wanted in ‘Night of the Kings’ to pay tribute to griots who are very important in our society because they’re story tellers, poets and historians,” shares the filmmaker who we virtually caught up with from his home in Abidjan.  “African cinema is very underrepresented, and it is time to tell black stories.

Koné Bakary - Courtesy of NEON
Koné Bakary – Courtesy of NEON

With dancers, griots, singers, martial arts fighters and all these young talents from Ivory Coast, we wanted to present our culture and different talents. As a young boy in Africa, Ivory Coast I grew up hearing stories. I had a neighbor who came from a village who told us stories each night and even with families, when your father wants to explain something to you, it is always with a story.”

Lacôte, whose previous offerings include the political drama “Run” and the documentary “Chronicles of War in The Ivory Coast,” deserves plenty of praise for this superb project which takes place in a day and is set in Ivory Coast’s notorious prison La Maca, a place Lacôte is familiar with. In Lacôte’s “Night of the Kings,” a young criminal (Koné Bakary) is sent to La Maca for pickpocketing.

 It’s there he is forced to regal his fellow inmates with a story or face repercussions. He chooses to tell the story of Zama King, a young outlaw, and takes his ardent listeners on a journey to a pre-colonial time of kings and queens. All the while, a power struggle between prison gangs plays out off stage.

“I wanted to use this prison as a metaphor of people who want to fight for power,” shares the filmmaker, who was a regular visitor at the prison. “My country is in the same situation. My mother was a militant and an activist and was sent to La Maca because she was fighting for democracy in Ivory Coast. She was part of a group who wanted democracy and different parties.

PHILIPPE LACÔTE - courtesy of Neon
PHILIPPE LACÔTE – courtesy of Neon

Finally, after 10 years they succeeded. It is not easy in Ivory Coast or even Africa to speak on politics. There are not too many people in Africa who have a voice and given the opportunity, I need to say something about my country. It is important that I speak about what I see in my country. Some people accuse me of trying to portray a bad image of Ivory Coast while others have thanked me for it.”

Politics aside, there is something incredibly whimsical about the way Lacôte has crafted this project which is already a favorite to win an Oscar in the Best Foreign film category. Fresh faced Koné Bakary who makes his film debut as Roman is a gifted storyteller while Steve Tientcheu from the Oscar-nominated French film “Les Misérables” plays the prison boss in a film which paints a very realistic portrait of prison life–a world with its own histories, hierarchies, and rituals.

“African prisons are full of young people being incarcerated for years in collective cells without being tried. A childhood friend coming out of La Maca told me about the “Roman” ritual where they choose a prisoner who has to tell stories. So, the story of the film is based on a real tradition there and prison always got me interested as a place where the balance of power we can find in our societies is being experimented. Being sent to prison today in Africa is something which can happen easily, either because you are poor or because you are being made an example to ensure the laws are respected.”

Poetic and touching, tragic and raw there is a lot of beauty to be found in “Night of the Kings” for the richness of culture and the artistry elevate this masterful tale to stirring heights.

“Night of the Kings” is out in select theaters and on Premium Video On-Demand March 5th.

Check out the trailer below:

Samantha Ofole-Prince is a Los Angeles entertainment journalist who covers industry-specific news. Follow her on twitter @SamanthaOfole – photos courtesy of NEON

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