Oscar-shortlisted “Night of the Kings” is inspired by West African griots

Oral history.
Oral history.
Image: NEON
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In the Oscar-shortlisted Night of the Kings, a young man (Koné Bakary) is sent to La MACA, an Ivorian prison in the middle of a forest that’s ruled by inmates.

The prison’s overlord, Blackbeard (Steve Tientcheu), chooses the new inmate to be the new Roman—when a blood moon appears, he must narrate a story to his fellow prisoners till dawn, or be killed. Confused and perplexed, the young man tells the story of a gang leader called Zama King (Goneti Oscar and Traoré Aboubacar), infusing it with myth, fable and mystique, as other prisoners join in his performance with poetry, song and dance.

This ritual draws inspiration from the West African tradition of griots, a class of traveling poets, musicians and storytellers. “In an essentially oral culture, he [a griot] is the one nurturing the social fabric,” the film’s Ivorian director, Philippe Lacôte, says in the film’s press notes.

Today, griots live in many parts of West Africa and are present among the Mandé, the Fulani, and the Hausa people, among other groups.

A real prison

Night of the Kings is inspired by the real La MACA prison in Abidjan, where Lacôte used visit his mother, who had been incarcerated for political reasons. As there were no visiting rooms, Lacôte waited among the inmates, who freely moved around the visitors.

“I was listening to this prison’s language,” he says. “It was a world that I loved to observe, even if I wasn’t able to decode everything. I had the impression of being at the court of some archaic kingdom with all its princes and lackeys.” Lacôte adds that he learned about La MACA’s blood moon ritual from a childhood friend: “I immediately pictured the setup and imagined a character in the middle of this arena.”

Philippe Lacôte, director of Night of the Kings.
Philippe Lacôte.
Image: NEON

Prisons are places of experiments in the balance of power in societies, Lacôte says. Being sent to prison in Africa is something that can happen easily, he adds, either because you are poor or because you are being made an example to ensure that laws are respected. Beyond this, he says, his research has been centered around the prison as a place where narratives are created.

“I defend the idea that every human group living in the same place for a certain duration of time creates a culture,” he says. “And every culture generates poetry.”

Best International Feature Film

Night of the Kings is one of two African films that were shortlisted in the Best International Feature Film Category for the 93rd Academy Awards, which will take place on April 25. The other is Tunisia’s The Man Who Sold His Skin, which is directed by Kaouther Ben Hania and went on to be nominated for the award.

Night of the Kings is the third Ivorian film to be submitted for an Oscar and the second submission by Lacôte, after his debut feature, Run, in 2015. The country’s first submission, Black and White in Colour, by French director Jean-Jacques Annaud, won the award.

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