Whatever Gets You Through the Night
By Max Carpenter

Night of the Kings
Dir. Philippe Lacôte, Ivory Coast, NEON

A god’s-eye-view pan over a green, tropical forest canopy inches slowly forward. A man belts mellifluous Arabic incantations (which seem to be Eid blessings) over the soundtrack. The camera gently pivots from vertical to horizontal until settling on a rectangular building framed amidst the luscious treescape. This is the teeming prison complex MACA (La Maison d'arrêt et de correction d’Abidjan), situated in Abidjan, Côte D’Ivoire’s largest city. On the ground our meek and bewildered protagonist, soon to be named “Roman” by Blackbeard, MACA’s head prisoner, is wheeled up to the gates of the prison handcuffed to the bed of a police pickup truck.

“If you want a chance at survival, don’t finish your story,” implores a derelict prisoner named Silence (Denis Lavant) in one of his only two speaking scenes. (In French this dictum holds a double meaning: histoire is at once story and history.)

Silence, in an isolated stairwell with a squawking hen on his shoulder, is advising Roman (Bakary Koné), who within minutes of his MACA arrival has been selected by the towering hierarch Blackbeard (Steve Tientcheu) to be the new prison storyteller. Above Silence and Roman hangs a meat hook. Roman will hang from it if he does not regale his fellow prisoners during the night’s blood-red moon. In an up-the-stairs long shot, the hook’s menacing presence is unmistakably Damoclean, though there’s a strange serenity to the surroundings: here the characters are hemmed in by burgundy, sandstone, charcoal, and aquamarine walls.

Prison nicknames like Roman and Blackbeard and Silence hold varying degrees of literary and political significance in Ivorian director Philippe Lacôte’s 93-minute tale of fabulist realism. Beyond these are Lass, Half-Mad, Razor Blade, and, among others, Sexy, a male prisoner made-up as a woman and wearing a leopard print dress. Perhaps the most important name in the film, though, is that of Zama (or “Zama King!” as chants the chorus of prisoners): the real-life leader of Abidjan street gang “the Microbes,” whose 2015 murder by an angry mob of civilians seems to have, in the world of Night of the Kings, led to Roman’s imprisonment.

Roman, taking his stand on a shabby wooden crate in the center of the prison’s large atrium, surrounded by a horde of rapt moving bodies, is repeatedly interrupted by everything from prisoner song-and-dance routines to clucking noises to a backroom scream to an all-out brawl. We learn through his fractured attempts at storytelling—he eventually hits a certain stride—that Roman is a childhood friend of Zama and perhaps a member of the Microbes. Early on, prison guards in army fatigues show Roman an image of a mutilated corpse and ask if he is responsible. (We never find out.) Also on the guards’ desktop monitor is a pulpy news mag, Allo Police, with a gory cover photo of Zama’s slaying and the tagline “ZAMA: LA FIN D’UN MYTHE” (“ZAMA: END OF A LEGEND”). The specters of violence and death are part and parcel of life in MACA, but never foregrounded. A throat is slit, a man drowns himself, a guard opens fire; we are only briefly shown the aftermaths.

Roman spins Scheherazadean yarns of a young, mythologized version of Zama, raised by a magic blind man who aids a storybook Queen in tribal warfare, but he too interrupts himself—both to change his story so as not to finish it too soon and, it seems, to retroactively sprinkle in manufactured plot twists also meant to buy him time. (Viewers will notice that Zama’s blind father is conveniently imagined as being portrayed by a background prisoner [Rasmané Ouédraogo], just as later Roman will mentally cop other prisoners for roles as he conjures new characters.)

Lacôte and cinematographer Tobie Marier-Robitaille proceed with a subtle but rigorous cinematic language. Roman’s initial telling of Zama’s childhood is accompanied by a second extreme overhead shot, panning across the dusty ramshackle roofs of Abidjan’s so-called ‘Lawless Quarter,’ establishing a parallel between the Zama mythos and the film’s presentation of Roman. The dizzying lantern-lit atrium scenes are mesmerizing—bodies in flux both swaying to and mimicking Roman’s every word—and the handheld camera work, colorful draperies, plastic-bag décor, and wall murals bring to mind the indoor world of Brillante Mendoza’s and Odyssey Flores’s Serbis (2008). Aesthetic comparisons to Mendoza’s summery film set in a cinema or Derek Jarman’s Sebastiane (1976) come to mind far more readily than any prison dramas.

Lacôte seems on his surest footing in the spiritual macrocosm of West-African animism. Blackbeard prophecies he will metamorphose into a doe after death, Zama is repeatedly heralded as a child of the wind and Roman traces his lineage back to an aunt who worked as a griot. The film’s most sublime sequence follows the otherworldly Queen on an Atlantic coast beach as she rests and eats, flanked by palm trunks, themselves obscured behind a lace tapestry held up by servants. The Queen (played by artist Laetitia Ky) exudes grace and sangfroid, her hair sculpted into cosmic ram horns. It feels nice to get lost in Roman’s stories.

“Do any of you follow the post-electoral crisis?”

Roman’s impromptu question is jarring and the prisoners clearly want none of it. Someone shouts that there’s no politics in MACA, but Roman goes on to insist that the post-electoral crisis made Zama into the violent criminal he became. The film is then momentarily consumed by a fast-paced montage of archival news videos documenting the 2010-2011 military conflict that resulted from former president Laurent Gbagbo refusing to leave office and eventually being forced out.

For those of us not up on our UN member political briefings, a primer: Côte d’Ivoire, like much of Sub-Saharan Africa, is roughly composed of a Muslim north and a Christian south. For decades the world at large would only lend credence to the country’s Christian faction, and although the Muslim cohort proved sizable enough to win popular elections they were rarely allowed to run their presidential candidates, mostly due to arcane election codes. In the mid-nineties a frightening but all-too-familiar brand of anti-immigrant Christian nationalism flourished even as the presidents remained Catholic. “Ivoirité” became the calling card of all who believed in suppressing Ivorian Muslims and barring neighboring Africans from “stealing jobs.” All the while Muslims continuously attempted to nominate the well-liked presidential candidate Alassane Outtara. Eventually Outtara was allowed to run in the 2010 election against Catholic incumbent Gbagbo, though upon the announcement of Outtara’s win, Gbagbo refused to cede power and a four-month civil war ensued, killing thousands but eventually putting Outtara in power.

Present-day Côte D’Ivoire reminds us that such an event is survivable, and Night of the Kings is a testament to a more inclusive future: actors are sourced not only from Abidjan but also from France and Burkina Faso, and Lacôte pointedly serves us up a medley of western art touchstones and West-African traditions; it’s an organic melting pot. On the other hand, the palpable end-of-times exhaustion speaks volumes.

Indeed, Night of the Kings is a statement from an artist who is exhausted—exhausted from violence, from nationalism, from politics. Much like in the director’s first feature Run (2014), Ivorian daily life is presented as a quintessentially Kafkaesque rat race, though this is not the hackneyed Kafka of bureaucratic obstacles, but the phantasmagoric Kafka of people jumping on each others’ shoulders and riding them like horses, of strange spur-of-the-moment bodily contortions and shape-shiftings and, most importantly, of an absence of personal politics beyond a politics of surviving and getting by. Blackbeard may stand in as an old-guard enslaver, and perhaps his eventual successors will espouse a democratized capitalism, and perhaps the militarized guards will put an end to the prison’s anarchy. As far as Roman and we are concerned, it’s all just talk. Take pleasure in brief moments of fleeting bliss—the film seems to advise—and do everything necessary to keep your head above water. You may well live long enough to bask in the morning sun.