Kena (Samantha Mugatsia) romances free spirit Ziki (Sheila Munyiva) in the great ‘Rafiki.’

‘Rafiki’ and ‘White Crow’ address repressive regimes

ARNOLD WAYNE JONES | Executive Editor
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The old women in Kena’s town in Kenya are as gossipy as gays at brunch… but then again, so are the men. Kena (Samantha Mugatsia) keeps to herself, though. She’s chilly with everyone, including her dad and Blacksta, the man who flirts with her. “You’ll make a good wife,” he opines. “That’s why I like you.”

She’s tomboyish, which doesn’t seem to bother people, even those who bully a local boy for being effeminate. But it’s appealing to Ziki (Sheila Munyiva), a girly, self-possessed young woman who asks Kena out on a date. Their relationship is verboten, and it frightens Kena herself.

Most coming-of-gay romances — good and bad; this is a good one — touch on reliable plot points: discovery, awakening, passion, shame, acceptance. It’s like the stages of grief: Cliché or not, you can’t avoid them. So what sets Rafiki apart — aside from focusing on two women of color — is the tenderness lovingly evoked by director Wanuri Kahiu and the originality of the setting. Africa is a continent where being gay isn’t merely a disgrace but often a criminal act coming with the possibility of violence, imprisonment and even execution. Kahiu combines that threat with a political dispute between the parents of Kena and Ziki. But love makes it impossible to effectively hide its impact on your psyche, which poses risks to them within their community.

From the leading performances to the music to the cinematography, Rafiki ticks all its artistic boxes. And like Brokeback Mountain, Call Me By Your Name and Moonlight before it, it explores the delicacy of love in a world rent by conflict and misunderstanding. It’s a beautiful, even exquisite bit of cinema.

Of birds and ballet: From the Black Swan to the White Crow

I’ve seen The White Crow, and I’m still not certain how to characterize what I’ve seen.  I mean, on the surface it is a biopic about Rudolf Nureyev, the Russian-born ballet dancer — with the possible exception of Baryshnikov, the greatest male ballet star since Nijinsky — and his defection to the West. But it is a political movie? A story of artistic passion and the desire for freedom? A story about a gay man who needed to escape a repressive regime? A psychological profile of how genius becomes itself?

Like I say… still wondering.

“What story do we wish to tell? What do I wish to say?” explains Nureyev’s teacher Pushkin (Ralph Fiennes, who also directed the film) about the need to understand dance. It’s a slight irony that Fiennes-the-director doesn’t seem to be able to answer that.

Although it takes place mostly in a few weeks in the early 1960s when Nureyev, visiting Paris with the Kirov, chose a moment to defect, the plot is rangy, slow, diffuse. The film doesn’t advance deeper into Nureyev’s post defection life, including his tragic death from complications from AIDS at 54. It only hints about the real motivations behind the man and rebellious spirit.

Oleg Ivenko, who plays Nureyev, bears an uncanny physical resemblance to him, but the similarities cease quickly. He lacks the master’s charisma; Nureyev was fiery, bold, shocking — he turned the male star from a supporting part to the center of attention in international ballet. Ivenko at the barre is technically proficient but lackluster compared to Nureyev, and as an actor, he’s merely adequate.

By the final 30 minutes (of more than 135), Fiennes develops some minor thriller-like tension, but by then it’s too late. This Crow simply doesn’t soar.

Both now playing at the Angelika Mockingbird Station.