Wednesday, May 15, 2019

Rafiki Is A Wondrously Crafted Romantic Tale In Every Way

Kena (Samantha Mugatsia), the lead character of Rafiki, is a teenager in Kenya who lives a seemingly normal life. She's working towards becoming a nurse in between helping her father, John Mwaura (Jimmy Gathu), who is running in a local election. His primary competitor, Peter Okemi, has a daughter named Ziki (Sheila Munyiva), that captures the attention of Kena and the two begin hanging out. It isn't long before they realize they share a romantic attraction to each other, which is an issue since homosexuality itself is outlawed in Kenya. But societal disapproval, as well as the disapproval of their rival parents, be damned, Kena and Ziki are in love and the two of them bring out the best in one another in the time they spend together.

There's so much to rave about in Wanuri Kahiu's Rafiki, but something that's especially amazing about this film is just how sweet the sequences depicting Kena and Ziki as romantic partners are. So much of this film depicts the kind of rampant societally approved homophobia these two characters have to deal with on a regular basis but thankfully the film also makes time to show our two lead characters just being their true selves in their interactions with each other. Because of how much of a stigma surrounds their relationship, Kena and Ziki can't be flashy or super overt in their declarations of romantic infatuation with one another which means Kahiu and Jena Cato Bass' screenplay opts for poignant depictions of romantic attraction that are so beautifully executed.

Just a scene of Kena and Ziki sitting alone in an abandoned vehicle together in the rain, not kissing, holding hands or doing anything overtly romantic, manages to feel emotionally sweeping in what it subtly means for the two characters. While they're sitting together in this car, there's an unspoken undercurrent of knowing, in this moment, neither of them are alone in their sexuality, even if they haven't acted on it with one another or anybody at all yet. It's a powerfully conceived sequence that serves as a terrific early example of how much emotional power Rafiki is going to get out of the interactions between its two lead characters, which become more and more overtly romantic as the story goes on.

Before they go on a real date, though, Rafiki makes it clear that the duo's individual sexualities are alive and well. In one of the scripts many brilliant strokes, neither Kena or Ziki are conflicted in being queer, they've fully accepted their own sexuality even before they've met. This is a fact that's made abundantly clear in an appropriately squirm-inducing opening scene depicting a visibly uncomfortable Kena sitting among some dudes who keep casually drop a bunch of gay slurs directed at an openly queer man. Kena hasn't turned to the camera and said "Hello, yes, I'm a member of the LGBTQA+ community", but right in this opening scene alone, it's communicated on a subdued yet no less powerful level that these homophobic words have hurt her on a personal level.

Opting for dialogue-free restrained depictions of the day-to-day lives of LGBTQA+ individuals living in disapproving societies is far from anything new in the world of queer cinema, but Rafiki builds on tenants of past pieces of queer cinema to create something so wholly new and riveting. It accomplishes this primarily through the distinctly realized lead characters and the experience of being queer in Kenyan society (which, much like American society, uses a warped interpretation of Christian theology to justify its homophobia). The characters are especially key in how Rafiki sets itself apart, it's impressive just how much detail the script is able to naturally communicate about the individual lives of Kena and Ziki, as well as their own separate home lives that inform their approaches to their sexuality, without engaging in distracting expository dialogue.

Instead, Rafiki is able to paint a vivid picture of just what Kena and Ziki are going through as people and in their interactions with their family, in the process creating a perfect refutation to homophobia in Kenya and in nay country. Such homophobia paints a one-size-fits-all picture of how every queer person is, but Rafiki beautifully and effortlessly makes sure that Kena and Ziki are richly detailed people with vastly different personalities. Those personalities really get to shine in more upbeat sequences of Rafiki that serve as a contrast to earlier more subdued sequences. In these upbeat sequences, Kena and Ziki are actually allowed to revel in each other's company and their own sexuality in a poignant manner. Watching the two of them dance while adorned in brightly colored neon face-paint is such sensational sight, you can practically sense Kena and Ziki's feelings of exhilaration coming off of the screen.

In this sequence as well as throughout the rest of the film we get to see one of the best parts of Rafiki: a color palette leaning heavily on bright colors. From an apartment complex whose exterior is decked out in pink to assorted costumes worn by certain characters to the multitude of colors found in Ziki's hair, Rafiki is a movie with more vivid bright colors than a dozen rainbows. Not only does this aesthetic choice make the film look dazzling on a visual level, but it also works wonderfully on a character level. Bright colors become a quietly enforced way for Kena and Ziki to subtly reinforce their sexuality. Director Wanuri Kahiu's use of bright colors in Rafiki is one of the most exceptional creative decisions in her outstanding directorial work on Rafiki. 

Her work behind the camera here is a key reason brings this story to life with such heartfelt insight that's mirrored by the two lead performances. I refuse to believe that this is Samantha Mugatsia's first time performing in a movie, she's superb in handling the subdued nature of her character while still vividly communicating who Kena is as a person. Sheila Munyiva in her self-assured lead performance makes for a perfect exuberant foil to Mugatsia's character and the two's chemistry is consistently captivating. The best part about both Mugatsia and Munyiva's performances is how well they're able to subtly convey how gloriously freeing this relationship is for both of their characters. Even if it's just for a moment in an abandoned vehicle, the two lead characters of Rafiki are able to find freedom and reaffirm who they are in their romantic interactions with each other.

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