Sundance 2021 Review: Night of the Kings

Written by Taylor Baker

76/100

SYNOPSIS: A young man is sent to “La Maca,” a prison in the middle of the Ivorian forest ruled by its inmates. As tradition goes with the rising of the red moon, he is designated by the Boss to be the new “Roman” and must tell a story to the other prisoners. Learning what fate awaits him, he begins to narrate the mystical life of the legendary outlaw named “Zama King” and has no choice but to make his story last until dawn.

Night of the Kings has been formally submitted in the category Best Foreign Language Film by Côte d’Iviore (Ivory Coast) for the Oscars.

REVIEW: A finished story is a dead man. Or so it seems in Philippe Lacôte’s sophomore feature. About a prisoner who is renamed Roman on an ominous night when the moon turns red and the title of storyteller is foisted upon him. Hinging on the words of debut performer Koné Bakary(Roman), this Scheherazade-like fable mixes reality, history, and desire.

Night of the Kings is at it’s most engaging in the prison(La Maca) as we’re witnessing Bakary engage in the act of storytelling. Holding his own against the crowd of prisoners shouting, singing, and jeering as he weaves his tale. When we shift to the images of the story being told they often lack atmosphere, tension, and propulsiveness. Things that immediately leap back into the viewer as we shift–often mid-scene back to the prison.


I found these choices to be deft and thoughtful ones. Reproposing the hypothesis: does a story belong to the storyteller or the audience? It does this all while engaging in the meaning, expectation, responsibility, and duty of telling of ‘your’ story not just as a man but as a nation. Rather than proffering answers Night of the Kings lingers on the cost of these questions.

The contemporary in prison timeline is sumptuously lit, with warm lamps and a near total absence of natural lighting until daybreak. Fabric hangs everywhere, the sets are dressed with care but not overfilled. The sound design and foley work seam together trickles of water, chirping insects, and dampened bare-feet splashing small pools of water to evoke an atmosphere that, were I able to view in a theater would assuredly be all encompassing.

Night of the Kings tells it’s story, and performs a transference of emotion. Emotion at a sense of history, a sense of loss, a hope for the future, but the agony and vigor it takes to just reach one more day. One thing is sure, I want to see more out of Philippe Lacôte as a writer/director and if he can re-team with newcomer Koné Bakary all the better.

Recommended.

Night of the Kings Trailer