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The Musical Prison: How Song Drives Night of The Kings

by | February 21, 2023

The use of vocal music in Philippe Lacôte’s sensational prison drama Night of the Kings is akin to that of a theatrical production. In a novel move, Lacôte recreates the Greek chorus and jesters’ repertory by casting singers he encountered during a trip to the beach. These street performers become film actors. They bring to life the prison system where the story is set.

The film tells the story of La Maca, a prison complex in a forest clearing near Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire, where the imprisoned have created their own hierarchy and traditions. One of these is the “Roman” tradition, where a prisoner is chosen to tell a story for the entire night. Once the red moon appears, the chosen storyteller, known as the Roman (played by Bakary Koné) must keep the audience captivated with his never-ending story. If he fails at his duty, he faces execution.

Music plays an important role in driving the narrative of the film. One example is the use of traditional African rhythms and instruments to set the scene in the prison. The music creates a sense of authenticity and immerses the audience in the world of the film. Additionally, the use of traditional African music helps to reinforce the film’s regional setting and the cultural context in which it takes place.

Lacôte deftly arranges music. When some of the imprisoned are organized as a chorus, they are able to do what Greek choruses never should: to take a part in the action, thereby altering the absurdist mood of the film with the somber message at its core. With perfect comedic timing, the chorus breathes empathy and injects a sense of humor into the story. The singers, who blend with skilled dancers, sinuously bring a sense of humor and cathartic relief to the tense conditions in the penitentiary.

At times the chorus serves as a collective poet by propelling the film’s metaphysical questions and giving it framework. For instance, when prison storyteller Roman twists the plot and gives a highly fantastical account of the life of Zama King, the notorious leader of the Microbes, a crime ring that terrorized the streets of Abidjan in the early to mid-2010s, the chorus embodies a certain Dionysian consciousness that examines penury and tribal wars in primeval kingdoms. The chorus accomplishes this by performing both dirges and comical songs that express the spectrum of the human condition.

With the help of the chorus, Lacôte also uses vocal music to evoke mood, establish the character of the prison, and provide ironic commentary on the plot and characters. The chorus dances and improvises songs like serenades, part-songs, rounds, and catches, all used very much in imitation of real life. For instance, when Roman narrates how Zama King, the bellicose young gang leader was lynched, the chorus renders a touchy partsong for the deceased street lord. In and out of the prison setting, the chorus provides interludes between acts. It sets the film’s emotional climate. Solemn and strange music plays in the background during gruesome events and magical events.

The chorus drives the plot and buttresses the director’s philosophy of no violence and bloodshed in his films. “I don’t want to shoot violence,” Lâcote said in an interview with the “There is enough violence everywhere; you watch a film or put on your TV, you will see violence. I’m interested in why it happens.” As a seven-year-old, the director used to visit his mother, a democracy activist held in the La Maca prison for a year. He mingled with the prisoners and observed their activities. Through personal experience, he came to understand that the prison, which was designed to hold 1,500 prisoners but houses 5,000, is a chaotic kingdom with its own laws and sense of order. That formative experience shaped his aversion to violence and bloodshed in his films.

Lacôte uses the Dionysian element in the music of the chorus. Meanwhile, the Apollonian element is established through the symbolism-filled dialogue articulated with a spirit of revelry. The combined effect of these two elements evokes the absurdist outlook of the film.

Chaos reigns and hostilities intensify between the prison leader Blackbeard (Steve Tientcheu) and Dangôro (Abdoul Karim Konaté), the leader of a dissenting faction. When the chorus stages a comical performance and pantomime, the warring gangs unite, reducing tensions in the prison. Roman also makes a brilliant digression by nodding at the past. In scenes reminiscent of Souleymane Cissé’s Yeelen (1987), he tells the story of a Queen (Laetitia Ky) who must face off against her younger brother Demi-Fou (Jean Cyrille Digbeu) to retain her power and throne.

The chorus maintains the film’s tension as it moves towards its chaotic resolution. The chorus also provides elegies for the inmates who are murdered or complete suicide. For example, when Lass (Abdoul Karim Konaté) conspires with the transvestite Sexy (Gbazi Yves Landry) to seduce Blackbeard’s right-hand man Koby (Stéphane Sebime) and slits his throat, Roman hears an alarming scream and stops his story. Everyone rushes to the scene of murder and the chorus renders an affecting dirge for the slain man. And when Blackbeard accepts defeat and descends into the customary stairwell to take his own life, Roman again halts his narrative and the chorus offers a heart-wrenching song that solemnizes the event.

By emulating the Greek Chorus and jester repertoire, Lacôte creates a memorable cinematic experience with Night of The Kings.

Michael Kolawole is a screenwriter, playwright, poet, and culture journalist from Nigeria.