If you have heard of Rafiki (Wanuri Kahiu, 2018), it is probably in relation to the controversial ban Kenya imposed on the film, preventing it from 2019 Oscar eligibility. The ban was on the grounds that the film advocates lesbianism – and yes, this is absolutely true – as Kenya, the location of the film, as well as the majority of Africa, forbids homosexuality by law. In Kenya, still, proof of gay relations is punishable by up to 14 years in jail.
‘The Kenyan Film Classification Board banned the film due to its “homosexual theme and clear intent to promote lesbianism in Kenya.”’ [Source: Quartz Africa].
It is on this scandalous opening tidalwave that Wanuri Kahiu’s Rafiki first washed into the world, giving the film a fitting debut into the LGBTQ+ cinema-rich year of 2018. Without the controversy, Rafiki might have struggled to compete against other queer films from that year such as Love, Simon (Greg Berlanti, 2018), Disobedience (Sebastián Lelio, 2018), and The Favourite (Yorgos Lanthimos, 2018). Rafiki’s narrative is simple, sweet and largely predictable, which does not take away from its entertainment value, but does perhaps prevent it from being heralded as an innovative masterpiece, particularly when compared with so many similar LGBTQ+ films.
The one element that sets Kahiu’s film apart – aside from the controversy of its release – is undoubtedly its backdrop. Rafiki is an explosion of colour, cultural difference, and an unabashed presentation of the reality of modern day African youth. The Kenyan locations provide the film with astonishing beauty, but also an impending sense of danger for the protagonists – two young girls who happen to fall in love – because we, the audience are so very aware of the consequences their relationship could have in this part of the world.
The film focuses primarily on Kena, a boyish, easy-going young woman who hangs out with the guys of her town and tries to navigate her mother and father’s messy breakup – which is, for a while, the focus of the town gossip. Kena’s attention is snagged by the wild and mischievous Ziki, with her feminine wiles and bright, pink-purple cornrows. Ziki’s wayward personality is captivating, and immediately alarming; in the small town where the two girls live, the slightest disruption of social etiquette is spread around via an older, gossip-hungry woman, making these girls’ chance at hiding anything, especially their forbidden love for one another, almost non-existent.
As Kena and Ziki’s relationship blossoms, we are shown alternating scenes: two girls slowly finding a first and entirely new sort of love, and against them, the foreboding snippets of an oppressive culture that threatens to undermine it. The two girls are from politically opposed families, are both expected to be heavily religious, and are surrounded by male peers that objectify them and openly discriminate against homosexuals and women. At the climax of the film, a shocking and violent scene takes place where the two lives the girls lead finally crash into one another, and they are forcibly ripped apart by the townspeople.
Without giving away any spoilers, I can happily state that Rafiki is thankfully not a tale of total misery, as so many lesbian films are. We leave Kena on a note of optimism, though nothing is explicitly stated. What strikes me most about Kahiu’s film are the entrancing images, colours, and details used to incorporate a truly magnificent culture into the story of a beautiful budding relationship between two young women. Rafiki may not win any Oscars, a la The Favourite, or even be remembered as it should be for more than its rocky beginnings over initial release, but it is an important staple of 2018, radiating poignancy in its rare insight into modern African youth culture. If you enjoyed the predictable and uplifting Love, Simon, but crave a film with some more ethnic sophistication, I urge you to seek out Rafiki.