Rafiki will probably always be better known for the story of its release than for the contents of its runtime. The film was initially banned in its home country of Kenya for its positive portrayal of a lesbian relationship, but was then the subject of a supreme court case that eventually saw the release of the film, and this story followed Rafiki to Cannes where it became the subject of acclaim. The court case leading to Rafiki’s release was a huge win for the Kenyan LGBT community, marking a precedent in LGBT rights that can now be used as a foothold for further gains. As for the film itself, though? Rafiki is a film worthy of its place in history.
Director and co-writer Wanuri Kahiu’s second narrative feature tells the story of two teenage daughters of local politicians competing for office in their community. Kena (Samantha Mugatsia) is the daughter of the poorer candidate (Jimmy Gathu), who builds his campaign through grassroots community service while operating a convenience store. One day, Kena notices Ziki (Sheila Munyiva) dancing with her friends on the sidewalk, and she becomes drawn to the daughter of the wealthier candidate. As rumors start to circulate about the scandalous friendship, Kena’s father warns that any problem arising from Kena and Ziki’s friendship would be more harmful to him than to his opponent. However, more than just friendship is blooming between Kena and Ziki, and their romance threatens to turn their conservative Christian community against them.
Mugatsia and Munyiva give outstanding performances as two young women discovering their sexuality in one another, as Kena is resistant to breaking social norms while Ziki exhibits a much freer, devil-may-care attitude. Their chemistry is awkward but palpable, and their relationship only becomes more interesting the more their class differences – notably Ziki’s unexamined social privileges – shape who they are and who they will become. This is contrasted with a community dynamic that is predominated by gossip and suspicion, outwardly professing love in a tight-knit church congregation but more strongly characterized by ostracism and violence toward those who threaten cultural norms. What’s particularly fascinating is that not only does this community come bearing sticks, but it also at times expresses heterosexual courtship as a complimentary carrot, as a way for Kena to escape poverty and elevate her station. Of course, doing this with another woman is seen as manipulative on her part, which is such a backward double standard that it’s no wonder the Kenyan government felt this film was a threat to their professed values.
But thankfully, not only is the romance and social commentary beautiful, but the film itself is shot gorgeously. Royal purples invade the background as a pervading symbol of religious authority, but hot pinks and yellows dominate the landscape and Kena’s and Ziki’s outfits, demonstrating how they belong even as the imperialism of Christianity wants them out. Close-ups on Kena’s and Ziki’s faces are comparable to Barry Jenkins’ work, opening windows of extreme empathy into characters who only seem to find it in one another. This is a low budget film that makes a visual meal out of little resources, so the name Wanuri Kahiu is one to watch out for as she prepares for her upcoming American studio film premiere.
Rafiki is an absolute marvel of a film, saying so much through visual cues, symbolism, and nonverbal actions that it feels like the work of a much more practiced hand. Its American theatrical release will be limited, but it’s absolutely worth seeking out for its electric performances and its biting social commentary. Furthermore, if you do see it, don’t be tempted into thinking that the problems presented are unique to Kenya. Americans also have a lot to learn from this one.