If you’ve ever floundered when asked to tell a joke off the cuff, you’ll feel Roman’s pain. Except he has it much worse. He has to weave an entire story. All night long. Surrounded by 200 jeering prisoners nicknamed things like ‘Half-Mad’ and ‘Petrol’. Not ideal.
The real name of this new arrival isn’t Roman – that’s the title assigned to him by the Dangôro, named Blackbeard, the supreme master who rules over this prison in the Ivorian rainforest. It’s a place of superstition and folklore, evocatively captured by Philippe Lacôte in this meandering movie which blends myth and reality, fact and fiction, with a generous sprinkling of song and dance.
A guard describes the place as the ‘only prison in the world run by an inmate’, but the real power in Night of the Kings lies in their beliefs. One is that whenever the leader falls ill, he must kill himself. Another, which Blackbeard (Steve Tientcheu, playing a frailer version of his mayor in Les Misérables) uses to distract rival factions vying to topple him, is that whoever he assigns as Roman must tell a story that lasts the duration of the red moon. If he doesn’t, he dies too.
So the basis of this story is another story: the ruminations of this young kid (Koné Bakary, fear and anxiety welling in his eyes), whose real name we never find out. Through his narrative, we learn of the period when royals still reigned over the Côte d’Ivoire. The civil war that shook the country in the mid-2000s. And a certain gangster called Zama King.
With the prison courtyard acting as a stage, the inmates heckle, dance and act out his words. The film may be hard to follow – CGI elephants stampeding in one minute, IRL news footage appearing the next – but it’s gloriously inventive too. Now, have you heard the one about the Ivorian prison?
Out in UK cinemas Jul 23. Available to stream in the US now.