Wanuri Kahiu’s 2018 ‘Rafiki’ Is the Modern-Day ‘Romeo and Juliet’

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Based on the short story “Jambula Tree” by acclaimed Ugandan writer Monica Arac de Nyeko, the film Rafiki is bubbling with radiance, life and love. (FMF: 5/5 rating)

Review by FF2 Intern Fiona Flanagan

“Kena” (Samantha Mugatsia) is a smart yet unassuming teenager, the daughter of “John” (Jimmy Gathu), a shopkeeper running as a candidate in upcoming local elections. Set in the outskirts of Kenya’s largest city, Nairobi, in an area informally known as The Slopes, where residents share a deeper intimacy than can be found in the rest of the city. The sounds of the streets, stray cats, street vendors, skateboards, people playing checkers with bottle caps, and coupled with the music of Muthoni Drummer Queen introduce the film’s electric vitality and imbues each character with a vibrant thrum. The intimacy of The Slopes becomes apparent when Kena starts eyeing and eventually spending time with the daughter of John’s more conservative election rival, “Ziki” (Sheila Munyiva), who is sunny and utterly bewitching with her pastel-colored braids that brim with a bright energy captured by Christopher Wessel’s vivid cinematography.  

Kahiu’s vision, inspired by the movement she co-founded called “Afrobubblegum,” for the film is aided wonderfully by Arya Lalloo’s production design. The ethos of this movement is to encourage fun, fierce and fantastical representations of Africa as opposed to the somber lens often favored by the continent’s artists. The vivid colors of walls and clothes give the film a distinct undercurrent of queerness. Kena’s best friend, “Blacksta,” (played by Neville Misati) hasmotorcycle that is lined with a rainbow thread. To quote Kahiu in a TCM  interview, “the set design is as camp as camp could be.”  In fact, one of the most romantic scenes is set in a hidden camper, which is saccharine-sweet, embowered with pink flowers. The scenes focus more on the emotional connection between the two women as opposed to sexualized shots of the female body. When designing these scenes Kahiu said she “didn’t want to make the gaze about the interaction of bodies but rather the interaction of emotions.” 

This queerness can’t exist in the same space it does in current Hollywood films where portrayals of lesbian couples face fewer constraints, because homosexuality is illegal in Kenya. Early on in the film, we see a young man considered to be gay taunted with slurs. The nameless man never gets a line of dialogue. The closest he comes to speaking is when he quietly sits next to a battered, heartbroken Kena. As the two share the frame, neither making eye contact with the other, the viewer anticipates some sort of exchange. Instead, the scene ends in silence and the nameless man becomes a symbol for Kenya’s silencing.

Kahiu does an excellent job showing salacious ideas proliferating swiftly through the religious and homophobic community as the two politicians’ daughters are seen together in public, and eventually culminates violent discord both at home and in the streets. They are abducted from the hidden nest of the camper and beaten by other members of the community. Kahiu’s tight framing in this particular scene creates an atmosphere for the viewer to feel equally trapped and helpless, forcing a deeper understanding of the protagonists’ anger and isolation from society. According to Kahiu, the film was banned in Kenya because the ending was not remorseful enough, but instead, was full of hope and joy for their kind of love. Wanuri says in the interview: “Love isn’t political, love is just love. The only time we assign politics to love is when there are people of color or a same-sex relationship on screen, but nobody would ever say a white heterosexual love story is a political act it would just be love unfolding.”

Munyiva and Mugatsia are both outstanding choices for the film, as the two share obvious chemistry that the film can’t help but amplify. Kahiu does an exceptional job capturing the iridescent euphoria of the two characters’ first real love. It is an authentic account of watching two people fall in love, constantly laughing, each touch more significant than the last. The lovers are united in their shared ambition not to be “typical Kenyan girls,” and to break out of the constraints of what is to be expected of normal women or normal Kenyans. In one harrowing scene, Kena puts on a dress and her mom says she looks like a proper lady and that all she needs now is a nice rich doctor to marry. They are told “Good Kenyan girls make good Kenyan wives,” however, they are clearly not interested in being conventional wives. It is in this dimension that Kahiu introduces a class aspect to their romance that differs from the love stories of the past. As opposed to the Capulets and Montagues of Shakespeare — who are both wealthy, arguably conservative families — Kena’s father John is a shopkeeper who supports a much more liberal approach to Kenyan policies. When Ziki’s father picks her up from the police station he immediately hits her whereas John consoles his daughter and encourages her mother to turn her anger towards the people that beat her daughter. It is in these scenes with Kena’s father, and the nameless queer man, where the viewer sees the seed of hope planted that caused the Kenyan government to ban the film. It is these beautiful complications, in such a magnetic film, that Kihiu cements Rafiki as a modern and more conscious Romeo and Juliet.

© [Fiona Flanagan] ([December 15th, 2020]) FF2 Media


Featured Photo: Samantha Mugatsia, Sheila Munyiva.

Middle Photo:  Samantha Mugatsia, Sheila Munyiva.

Bottom Photo:  Samantha Mugatsia, Sheila Munyiva.

Photo Credits: Météore Films, Salzgeber & Co. Medien, Cinemien.

Tags: Rafiki, TCM, Turner Classic Movies, Wanuri Kahiu

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