A boisterous, joyful film about a terribly sad situation, writer-director Wanuri Kahiu’s “Rafiki” is the tale of two lovestruck young women in contemporary Nairobi, where homosexuality is illegal and punishable by 14 years in prison. These daughters of rival politicians find themselves drawn to one another across wide class and social divides — a tomboy and a princess stealing secret kisses in an abandoned old van down by the soccer field. It’s a funny, romantic and often maddening movie. After all, being a teenager in love is tough enough, now imagine that it’s against the law.
We open on a bright pink apartment complex with a pastel rainbow of laundry hanging on the lines outside, rippling in the wind. “Rafiki” instantly announces itself as one of the most visually vibrant films you’ll see this year, beginning with a blast of brightness and energy as coltish Kena (Samantha Mugatsia) skateboards her way through the bustling neighborhood. She hangs out with a rowdy crowd that’s rough around the edges — including a horny motorcycle cab driver given the glorious nickname “Blacksta” — killing lazy afternoons at an outdoor café run by a matronly, all-seeing gossip who’s in everybody’s business.
The tight-knit community comes to bristling life in this picture, as we find ourselves in the midst of a heated local election race for assemblyman between Kena’s humble, shopkeeper dad and a moneyed incumbent from the wealthier side of town. Then one afternoon the rich dude’s daughter comes dancing her way into Kena’s neighborhood, playfully ripping down the rival candidate’s campaign posters until our two star-crossed protagonists lock eyes with an electric charge.
Wearing cotton candy-colored dreadlocks down to her waist and a lipstick pout, Ziki (Sheila Munyiva) looks like she’s from another planet compared to Kena’s backward ball-cap crew, and the insouciance with which she returns her gaze suggests a world of wonderful trouble about to happen. Their tentative, illicit courtship is the best part of “Rafiki,” full of mischief and ripe with possibility, refusing to be weighed down by the solemnity of so many forbidden romances.
Kahiu refers to her ebullient approach as “afrobubblegum,” a deliberate effort to upend stereotypes of African cinema as starchy homework assignments full of sand, squalor and AIDS. With its Day-Glo palette and bouncy Kenyan soul music soundtrack, “Rafiki” is above all great fun to watch, which is why it’s so effectively jarring when the back-slapping bonhomie of Blacksta and the boys abruptly explodes into ugly, homophobic slurs hurled at a silent, effeminate man trying to make his way through the marketplace.
Danger is always bubbling just below the peppy surface here, like during a church service that begins celebrating scripture and devolves into hateful bigotry from a purple-clad priest. The ever-reckless Ziki tries to hold hands with Kena during the sermon, a sure sign that this coddled child doesn’t quite understand the peril that their secret love affair has put them in. Unfortunately, she’s about to find out.
“Rafiki” was initially banned by the Kenyan Film Classification Board, which tellingly did not object to the love scenes, but rather according to Kahiu claimed the ending “was not remorseful enough.” (In other words, it’s OK to make movies about gay people as long as they feel bad about themselves.) Meanwhile “Rafiki” became the first Kenyan movie to screen at the Cannes Film Festival, and after a lawsuit and high court ruling the censorship board was forced to relent, allowing a one-week engagement at theaters in Kenya, where it beat “Black Panther” at the box office.
More unabashedly entertaining than most movies that become causes, “Rafiki” is nonetheless not without its problems. Kahiu struggles a bit juggling the tonal shifts and bungles a central act of violence, but even her missteps have a scrappy quality I found endearing. It reminds me of those occasionally clumsy underdog indies from the ‘90s New Queer Cinema movement, like a Kenyan cousin to “The Incredibly True Adventures of Two Girls in Love.”
The picture ends with a controversial coda that I wasn’t quite sold on when I first saw “Rifiki” at last year’s IFFBoston Fall Focus. It’s a crowd-pleasing gesture that’s certainly not remorseful enough for some viewers and maybe not realistic enough for others. But for whatever reason, this time around its mix of tenderness and hope struck me as just right.
“Rifiki” runs from Friday, May 10 through Thursday, May 16 at the Brattle Theatre. The 7 p.m. show on Monday, May 13 will be followed by a discussion with Amah Edoh, assistant professor of African Studies at MIT.