When a movie is banned by a government, then allowed to be distributed after a supreme court reversal, it gets my attention. When that movie is about a same sex love story, and is foreign, I’m even more interested. And when it garners a slew of festival awards it becomes a slam dunk that I’m going to watch it.

Rafiki is all of the above. A joint effort by a slew of African and European agencies, producers and funding sources, the movie has made great waves across the globe for its groundbreaking portrayal of lesbian love in Kenya.

Africa as a continent is not so gay friendly, and Kenya still has a long way to go on acceptance of gay and lesbian relationships. The current law is that engaging in homosexual behavior is illegal, and hence a movie that shows any positive effects is to be banned.

Rafiki is Swahili for “friend” and the movie is shot primarily in a style that is gritty and fluid, very much like early Spike Lee’s “She’s Gotta Have It” but with vibrant colors and characters. The action is in both Swahili and English, with English subtitles throughout the film. What I have noticed about myself is that I have no trouble with subtitles because I read so quickly that after a few minutes of the film I’m “hearing” the dialogue in English, and frankly at this point I couldn’t tell you what was in English and what wasn’t.

The basic plotline is a variation on the Romeo and Juliet, with two houses of rival politicians vying for the same political office. One of the families is working class, and one is clearly more of the leisure class. The political overtones of Kenyan domestic policy were lost on me, but not the dynamics of homophobia that rang painfully true.

Movies are called that because they are ‘moving images’. They can be most powerful when there is no dialogue, and a scene that shows an entire story. In Rafiki there is a wordless scene of profound beauty, pain, and shared human suffering, that made me cry with its simplicity. Nothing more than a man and a woman, sitting on a bench, that summed up the fragile sense of security, aloneness and community, all in one shot. Rafiki is brilliant filmmaking at its finest.

As we move closer to June, and Santa Monica has its first pride month (how is that possible?) it’s nice to see cutting edge films being circulated. The goal of good literature, music and films is to make people think. To broaden horizons and to see more of the human experience. Rafiki broke barriers in Kenya and hopefully is at the forefront of a cultural change in that country, which is still shedding its colonial era prejudices.

That is not to fault Kenya, certainly we still have a long way to go on shedding our own colonial era, post-colonial and Jim Crow prejudices and biases, we’re perhaps a bit ahead of them on some civil rights issues, but not others. It was just this month that Texas executed a man for the unconscionable killing of a black man by dragging him behind a truck for a couple of miles. We’re only 2 decades away from the murder of Matthew Shepard, the Wyoming gay man who was left to die on a fence. I still have “friends” who say incredibly thoughtless and painful things to me out of their own ignorance and insecurity.

Gay Pride month is a mere two weeks away, and for those who love movies and want to get a jump on the month, while seeing an insightful and beautiful portrayal of how difficult it can be at times to navigate the social currents as a gay person, I highly recommend Rafiki.

I thoroughly enjoyed this movie at the Laemmle Royal which is a bit of a schlep as I prefer the Monica Film Center, but any Laemmle is good because they use real butter on their popcorn.


David Pisarra is a Los Angeles Divorce and Child Custody Lawyer specializing in Father’s and Men’s Rights with the Santa Monica firm of Pisarra & Grist.  He welcomes your questions and comments.  He can be reached at dpisarra@pisarra.com or 310/664-9969.You can follow him on Twitter @davidpisarra

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