‘Rafiki’ brings Kenyan lesbian love story to big screen

While the film’s plot and filmmaking leave more to be desired, Wanuri Kahiu’s tender exploration of sexuality feels groundbreaking nonetheless.

This review contains spoilers for the movie “Rafiki.”

Even before it became the first Kenyan film to debut at Cannes Film Festival, “Rafiki” had already made international headlines. Wanuri Kahiu’s sophomore feature was banned in its home country for depicting a lesbian love story that the Kenya Film Classification Board head said “undermined the sensibilities” of Kenyans. Kahiu proceeded to sue the KFCB, resulting in a temporary injunction that allowed “Rafiki” to screen domestically for one week in September.

Apart from allowing the film to be considered for the Oscars (the Academy requires that submissions be shown in their home countries for a minimum of seven days), this release also marked one of the first times Kenyan audiences were able to experience a queer story in a nation where gay sex and homosexuality are still illegal. Showing “Rafiki” at home was especially important to Kahiu, who told National Public Radio that she wanted to show the “beauty and heartbreak that ensues when two black LGBT characters follow their heart.”

The significance of this context can’t be understated when watching the film, whose familiar plot beats and uneven editing are bolstered and salvaged by the tender performances and timely circumstances involved. “Rafiki” introduces us to Kena (Samantha Mugatsia), a young tomboy who spends her time skateboarding around her village alongside her friend Blacksta (Neville Misati) and dreaming of surpassing her mundane life to study as a nurse. Her father (Jimmy Gathu), a local shopkeeper, is running to be a Member of the County Assembly (a powerful political position) against wealthy frontrunner Peter Okemi (Dennis Musyoka). Soon, Okemi’s own daughter, Ziki (Sheila Munyiva), begins to appear as a sort of bubblegum specter at the edge of Kena’s vision as she dances around town with her overconfident friends.

Although the girls are originally positioned as enemies because of their familial ties, Kena is rapidly drawn in by Ziki’s bright cotton candy dreads and nearly omnipresent, mischievous grin. From a city rooftop, they bond over their desires to not be “typical Kenyan girls” — Kena hopes to be a nurse (and later, at Ziki’s urging, a doctor), while Ziki hopes to see the world. Even as the conservative pressures of their church and parents to prepare for a traditional home life hang over their heads, the two girls’ unlikely courtship quickly blossoms into first love.

Kahiu’s dedication to depicting her characters and home in a deliberate, heartful way is especially clear in this section of the film. The director doesn’t shy away from illustrating the post-colonial homophobia that exists in Kenya, but throughout “Rafiki,” she provides a loving view of her home country through the bright, lively lense of her two main characters. In turn, Kena and Ziki’s infatuation is communicated through delicate close-ups and vibrant wide shots that cast the pair in saccharine, pinkish hues.

In a welcome departure from many lesbian films helmed by largely white, straight male directors, their budding relationship is never fetishized or made to feel overtly sexualized. Instead, Mugatsia and Munyiva play these scenes with an almost mesmerizing wide-eyed longing, as their tender exchanges mirror the newfound inspiration that the girls have for the trajectory of their own lives. In turn, the sweetness of the film’s mid-section makes the third act all the more heartbreaking, when Kena and Ziki’s relationship is exposed to their largely non-accepting, disgusted community. The two main actresses, as well as the actors that play their parents, carry later points of “Rafiki” without the light afro-pop that filled many of its earlier scenes with a rawness that rewards viewers with an ambiguously hopeful ending.

Unfortunately, the film’s altruistic ambitions and strong lead performances don’t eschew the weaker elements of its plot and production elements. The team’s low budget is apparent in its shaky crowd scenes and abrupt framing shots. While the story is strengthened through Kahiu’s knowledge of and care for the culture and setting that inform “Rafiki,” familiar queer beats of forbidden love and the resulting prejudice and fall-out never deviate from their expected pattern as they unfold.

From Kena and Ziki’s immediate, virtually unprecedented connection to a homophobic church sermon mere hours after one of the couple’s first dates, the plot cuts conveniently from one point to another in a way that leaves a few too many loose ends. Many of the supporting characters also read as one-dimensional extensions of the film’s themes, and while it’s clear they have been cultured against the LGBT community, making them fully fleshed-out characters could have made their aggression toward Kena and Ziki’s relationship seem more realistically grounded.

In the grander scheme of things, “Rafiki” does not break new ground or provide new technical innovations in the growing contemporary queer film canon. That being said, it’s difficult not to be moved by the lengths that the actors and director went to bring an authentic, tender lesbian love story to Kenya in an era where many Western LGBT films often don’t deviate from their focus on queer white men and tragedy. And, in the midst of a very divisive, draining year, a sweet love story between two African women being shown to mainstream audiences couldn’t feel more welcome.

Edited by Siena DeBolt | sdebolt@themaneater.com

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