Rafiki is a bold breakthrough, the arrival of a keen aesthetic talent and clear voice on a global stage.
Wanuri Kahiu’s Rafiki opens with a montage of Nairobi life that illustrates the vibrancy of life in the city. Citizens walk around in colorful clothes that blend traditional and modern dress as hip-hop blares on the soundtrack. Buildings painted in hues of bright pink glow in the sunlight, casting a warm tone over scenes of people engaged in work and play. In short order, one gets a sense of urban Kenya as a place where traditional and globalized culture intersect. Christopher Wessels’ handheld cinematography lends a degree of intimacy to this sweeping view of the city, yet it still imparts the size and complexity of Nairobi.
This backdrop is fitting for the film’s story, which confronts the lackadaisical, mostly young characters with their own subconscious conservatism. Kena (Samantha Mugatsia), a student who works at the grocery store owned by her father, John (Jimmy Gathu), spends her free time hanging at local dives with friends, particularly her male buddy, Blacksta (Neville Misati). We meet Blacksta leaving the home of Nduta (Nice Githinji), who runs the soda shop where he, Kena and their friends spend all their time. Blacksta is dismissive of Nduta, treating her as nothing more than a means of sexual gratification, and when Kena suggests he behave more chivalrously, he laughs at the absurdity of the suggestion. Later, while hanging out, a friend of theirs suddenly stops laughing and playing when he spots a local man rumored to be gay, flying into such a disgusted rage that he has to leave.
Yet even as the man stomps off in revulsion at the idea of a gay person, Kena catches the eye of another young woman, Ziki (Sheila Munyiva), whose brightly colored dreadlocks immediately set her out from a crowd. Kena’s lingering stare gives away her interest, though her feelings are complicated not only by Kenya’s harsh homophobic laws but Ziki’s own status as the daughter of John’s rival for political office, Peter Okemi (Dennis Musyoka). In fact, the two girls only formally meet when Kena catches Ziki’s friends tearing down her father’s campaign posters and gives chase, only to be talked down by Ziki. The two spark up a quick friendship that earns them sidelong glances from other townspeople who whisper about the pair ignoring their fathers’ political enmity, but soon they progress into something more.
Kahiu films the increasingly romantic moments between the girls in moments of vivid color and light. A night out at a dance club involves both putting tribal patterns on their faces and bodies in Day-Glo paint, the shapes blazing under the purple, dim glow of black lights. Later, after the two consummate their relationship, they lie together as the morning sun illuminates them in a calming haze. These are moments of bliss couched among the fear that permeates the film elsewhere, with the colorful hues of Nairobi filmed in increasingly stark terms as Kahiu visualizes Kena’s mounting terror of discovery. In one scene, the director films Kena and Ziki’s hands as they sit in church and listen to a blisteringly homophobic tirade from a priest. As the man rages, Ziki playfully grabs Kena’s arm, only for Kena’s free hand to rush to push her away, the fear palpable in the firmness of her grip. With gossips and scolds everywhere, Kena cannot bear the thought of being caught.
Inevitably, the other shoe drops, and Kena’s fears are justified, but to the film’s credit, it compartmentalizes the requisite misery and pain of coming-of-age gay drama to a brief segment of the film’s running time. Kahiu instead devotes most of Rafiki to illustrating the day-to-day hypocrisies of homophobia in the name of so-called moral heterosexuality. Compare Kena and Ziki’s respectful, egalitarian affection with the controlling chauvinism of Kena’s male peers, particularly Blacksta, who regularly makes vulgar and demeaning remarks to nearly every woman he sees. Even John, a loving and respectful father figure for Kena, is a coward when it comes to his separation from Kena’s mother, unable to tell her or Kena of his new wife’s pregnancy or even to communicate with her directly.
Kahiu’s subtler illustrations of the absurd and arbitrary lines of hatred distinguish her film from its increasingly rule-bound genre, though the director’s occasional tendency to reduce conflict and romance into montages set to regretful singer/songwriter cues link it to the more hackneyed elements of contemporary gay cinema. At times, Rafiki fails to deliver narratively on its unique visual language, falling into generic patterns of nervous flirtation, social paranoia, travesty and haggard recovery that defines these films. Nonetheless, the concrete, literally codified danger of being gay in Kenya charges the film with added despair and outrage, which lends some of the staler tropes added depth and passion. Kahiu also excels at capturing the complex emotions that pass between the two leads, from their moments of hesitation when feeling each other out to the ebullience in their faces when they become more open. For all its narrative convention, Rafiki is a bold breakthrough, the arrival of a keen aesthetic talent and clear voice on a global stage.