Review: Kenyan love story 'Rafiki' comes alive

A sweet, affecting Kenyan love story about two teenage girls whose fathers are political rivals

Adam Graham
Detroit News Film Critic
Samantha Mugatsia and Sheila Munyiva in "Rafiki."

Banned in its homeland of Kenya for its positive depiction of homosexuality, "Rafiki" is a colorful, expressive love story about romance overcoming boundaries. 

Samantha Mugatsia is Kena, a teenager living in a gritty section of Nairobi dubbed "the Slopes," where the town gossips love to chat about everyone else's business.  

Kena soon becomes the subject of that same gossip when she begins flirting with Ziki (Sheila Munyiva), whose pink and blue braids are like strands of cotton candy. The situation is intensified since Kena and Ziki's fathers are feuding political rivals, both seeking office.

Kena and Ziki explore their budding sexuality, though "Rafiki" — its title translates to "Friend" — is mostly chaste as their love blossoms. Director and co-writer Wanuri Kahiu shows their connection and the way it slowly grows through deep glances and nervous twitches, you know, the stuff of everyday young love. 

Homosexuality is still considered a criminal offense in Kenya, however, and Kena and Ziki have to deal with more than the butterflies in their own stomachs, as a violent mob enacts physical violence on the two lovebirds for their transgressions. 

Kahiu has a knack for showing the life of the city and the characters who inhabit it, from the church to the street corner to the makeshift soccer field offset by two tires. It's a film that is rushing with energy and life.

Mugatsia and Munyiva are wholly convincing as the pair at the film's center, their inexperience on screen ("Rafiki" is the first film credit for both) adding to the authenticity of their characters. Thanks to them, "Rafiki" feels real. 



Not rated: Sexuality, violence

Running time: 82 minutes