For all the fluster I’ve been making about finding Black helmed films on streaming services, I’ve had a handful that I’ve been keeping in my back pocket. Not enough to get me through the month unfortunately, but I find films elsewhere. And for tonight I have a film I’ve been looking forward to since it caused some controversy in its country of origin.
Rafiki (2018, Dir. Wanuri Kahiu)
Late last year when I watched Happiest Season (2020, Dir. Clea DuVall) I told myself that I was kind of done with scared to come out/ unsupportive parents plotline in queer cinema. Gay marriage has been legal in all 50 states for five years now; that story is well trodden and doesn’t need to be rehashed to into oblivion. I’m looking for something new in my queer cinema. That stance needs an important appendment: I’m looking for something new in my US queer cinema. Because in other parts of the world, like Kenya where gay sex can land you in prison for years, this is still the story they need to tell.
Rafiki at first seems to be the exact kind of paint by numbers romance that I’ve grown tired of. An initial conflict is hinted at for our two lovers when Kena’s (Samantha Mugatsia) friend makes homophobic comments against a known gay man. This combined that Kena and Ziki’s (Sheila Munyiva) fathers are political rivals sets up a completely predictable star-crossed lovers’ story.
It’s when the film’s climax hits that Rafiki develops in a way more locally specific. Director Wanuri Kahiu pulls no punches with her depiction of the oppressively anti-gay culture. When Kena and Ziki are caught kissing they attempt to run away in vain. When members of the community find them, it’s not to ridicule them, or to sensationalize their relationship for political gossip, but to attack the girls and leave them in a bloody mess on the ground. When the police arrive, it’s not to arrest their assailants, but to arrest the girls for being in a same-sex relationship. It’s in this moment that Kahiu asserts her purpose in making this film. She forces the audience member in a more accepting world to understand that the fight for equal rights is not over, and to help viewers in her home country to work on changing.