In “Rafiki,” the Kenyan actress Samantha Mugatsia delivers a quietly watchful performance as Kena, a Nairobi teenager on the verge of falling in love for the first time.
Slender and taciturn, Kena has the lanky ease of a tomboy, whether she’s playing soccer with her cadre of male friends or riding her skateboard through her close-knit neighborhood. When she spies Ziki (Sheila Munyiva) across from a street kiosk, she’s immediately intrigued. With her flirty dresses and hair artfully twisted into cotton candy-colored locks, the playful, carefree Ziki beckons Kena, less with outright seduction than the promise of sweet relief from her own far more serious existence.
Adapted from a story by Monica Arac de Nyeko by director Wanuri Kahiu and co-writer Jenna Bass, “Rafiki” was banned in Kenya, where homosexuality is illegal. Kahiu makes a bold stand for tolerance in the film, wherein Kena and Ziki’s relationship blossoms despite sexism, family expectations, malicious gossip, the homophobia of the Christian church and, in the film’s most upsetting scene, an act of vicious cruelty and violence. Whereas some of these confrontations feel immediate and spontaneous, others feel more schematic and awkwardly staged by Kahiu, who makes her second feature film here.
Still, the attractions of “Rafiki” far outweigh its sometimes painfully obvious narrative. Mugatsia and Munyiva have an endearing, unforced chemistry (the scene where they get to know one another is particularly delicate), and Kahiu films them against a glorious backdrop of Nairobi’s streetscape, club life and domestic interiors – a vibrant, multilayered collage of light, color, texture and motion. As an example of the filmmaker’s house style – which she calls “Afrobubblegum” – “Rafiki” presents a radiant, vivacious portrait of young love that owes as much to “Romeo and Juliet” as “Bend It Like Beckham” and “Moonlight.”
Although Kahiu is sharply critical of the hypocrisies of Kenyan culture, she is just as attuned to the sweetness of romance at its most instinctive, tender and fragile. For its formal simplicity and directness, “Rafiki” is a small revelation, not least because it marks the breakthrough of a filmmaker of such exhilarating, cheerfully courageous vision.
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