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Movie Review: 'Night Of The Kings' Celebrates The Power Of Stories

One reason I love movies from African countries is because they often take an approach to storytelling that I’m not used to seeing. Sometimes, it’s in the way the narrative unfolds, sometimes it’s in the way the characters interact with each other. And, sometimes, as with the dazzling new film Night of the Kings, it’s that storytelling itself is put front and center.

In the Ivory Coast forest, there’s a prison that’s ruled by an inmate named Blackbeard. In the tradition of the prison, the man who occupies Blackbeard’s position is required to commit suicide if he’s no longer able to rule. Blackbeard has become ill, and knows his days are numbered, but hits upon a scheme to stay in power a bit longer—he knows that a red moon will soon be rising, which means he can call a “Night of Roman,” in which one person tells stories to all of the inmates through the night. The young man Blackbeard chooses to be this storyteller—this “roman,” as they call him—has just entered the prison and has no idea what awaits him.

This roman is the member of a street gang that likely had some role in killing another major gang figure, which plays an important part in the stories he tells. He’s thrust directly into his storytelling role, he has no preparation, but luckily for him, he grew up with an aunt who was a griot, and so he has an idea for how to weave a story. Which is fortunate, as he learns this is a literal life-and-death situation.

The film is dark and violent, but also exhilarating as the roman tells his stories, jumping back to earlier days of his country’s history and kings and queens, and following a thread into the modern day. The crowd of inmates is more than a little engaged, with calls and responses, cheers and chants, sometimes acting out the events of the roman’s story, sometimes acting as a sort of Greek chorus. Night of the Kings is an enthralling, invigorating work, one that wildly celebrates a long, deep tradition of storytelling.

Fletcher Powell has worked at KMUW since 2009 as a producer, reporter, and host. He's been the host of All Things Considered since 2012 and KMUW's movie critic since 2016. Fletcher is a member of the Critics Choice Association.