Film Movement Movie Review: Rafiki (2018)

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Senses and nerve endings heightened, when you fall in love, the world glows brighter, energy burns hotter, Earth spins faster on its axis, and songs sound like they were written especially for you.

A discovery process that lets you see not only someone else but also yourself mirrored back to you with laser-like focus, like a drum that goes off deep within your chest, love resonates long after the beat has been struck, mixing with the environment like paint still drying on the canvas to create something at once both familiar and new.

And this is precisely the feeling that writer-director Wanuri Kahiu captures in her jubilant Kenyan coming-of-age romance Rafiki, which floods the viewer's senses with a celebration of color, cheer, and song in the "fun, fierce, frivolous" style of what the filmmakers dubs Afrobubblegum, which has also become the name of her company.

Black Orpheus by way of Monsoon Wedding with a little of Do the Right Thing seasoned throughout its neighborhood scenes, based on Monica Arac de Nyeko's short story Jumbula Tree, Kahiu's Rafiki, which was initially banned in its native Kenya, is centered on the headstrong young woman, Kena (Samantha Mugatsia).

Dedicating her days to hanging out with her best friend, who declares his intentions by stating that she'll make a good wife (even while he hooks up with other girls) and his circle of friends who treat her as one of the boys, Kena suddenly finds herself drawn to Ziki (Sheila Munyiva), the alluring daughter of her father's political rival.

First spending time together tentatively after Kena catches Ziki and her friends pulling down her father's campaign posters, soon, away from the influence and watchful eye of their friends and family in their tight-knit Nairobi neighborhood, the young women dare each other to do something more with their lives than just go from good Kenyan girls to good Kenyan wives as expected.

Pulled together like a magnet by an undeniable attraction they're not initially sure what to do about — especially in a country where homosexuality is against the law — as lingering looks grows into something more and a romance develops, Kena and Ziki’s burgeoning relationship is threatened by the oppressive homophobia surrounding them.

An upbeat story nonetheless, at its core Rafiki is a sweet-natured romance about finding out exactly who you are and what you're capable of while simultaneously falling in love.

Bold and beautiful, with a keen sense of time and place, Kahiu has created something truly special with Rafiki, which despite its very straightforward plot and limited character development (perhaps stemming from its origins as a short story), serves its audience both as a terrific film as well as a reminder to the home country Kahiu cherishes that love is love.

A truly feminist work, Rafiki is as anchored by female talent on its pop song heavy soundtrack as it is via the behind-the-scenes crew who helped bring the first Kenyan film to premiere at the Cannes Film Festival to life.

From the way Kahiu plays with splashes of color and texture to give her picture an ethereal pastel hue as a nod to Ziki's hair to Rafiki's overall ambitious world-building which drops us right into the neighborhood of Slopes and treats us like a resident, the film announces an exciting voice in world cinema for us to keep an eye on.

Successfully suing the government by arguing that banning the film infringed upon her freedom of expression, in a smash week-long engagement, Rafiki played to packed houses and managed to outgross huge Hollywood hits like Black Panther.

Exceedingly well-acted in a thoroughly naturalistic style, although it ends a moment too soon to adequately pay off on its otherwise moving build-up, it's a minor misstep in an otherwise powerful movie.

Perfectly capturing the heightened sensory state of falling in love — and world be damned — Wanuri Kahiu's Rafiki is as vivacious as it is courageous.

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