Every Monday throughout June, The Byrd Theatre will celebrate Pride Month with #MonGays, a series spotlighting the LGBTQ community. This week, Kenyan film Rafiki kicks off the month in memorable fashion.
When was the last time you witnessed history unfolding and actually felt like humanity at its core was good? When was the last time you felt the Earth shift beneath you because you saw something brought to reality that you never thought could exist before? That’s the feeling thousands of Kenyans had last year when they saw Rafiki on the silver screen.
The Kenya Film Classification Board (KFCB) banned Rafiki last year “due to its homosexual theme and clear intent to promote lesbianism in Kenya contrary to the law.” That law the KFCB was referring to was a statute that allows authorities in the country to imprison anyone for up to 14 years for being homosexual.
When director Wanuri Kahiu dreamed of making a film about the friendship and tender love that grows between two young women, Kena and Ziki, she thought the greatest tension she’d have to endure would be that of the plot: family and political pressures surrounding the topic of LGBTQ rights in Kenya. The KFCB felt her ending was too positive and hopeful, so they ordered her to change the story so that the girls would face consequences for their non-heteronormative behavior. When she refused, they banned Rafiki outright.
The prohibition against screening her critically acclaimed film took Kahiu to the country’s Supreme Court, where she argued that her freedom of speech rights as a director were being infringed upon. The court didn’t overturn the ban on “gay propaganda;” however, they decided that the government must allow Kahiu to screen her film at one theater for seven days, so that she may qualify for the Best Foreign Film award at the 91st Academy Awards.
For seven days the Prestige Cinema at the heart of Nairobi, the capital, screened Rafiki, meaning “friendship” in Swahili. Every single screening sold out. Rafiki went on to be shown at the Cannes International Film Festival. Buzz abounded that Rafiki may not only be nominated for Best Foreign Film but may actually be the first Kenyan-made film to take home the prize.
Kenya’ national film board, however, had other ideas. Siding with the KFCB that Rafiki was too “morally subversive,” they made sure that another film was chosen to receive the country’s nomination for the Academy Awards. The controversy surrounding the film sparked international interest in the rights of LGBTQ individuals in Kenya and across Africa.
Thanks to the work of Enjoli Moon — assistant film curator for the ICA and founder of the Afrikana Independent Film Festival — the ICA hosted a small screening of Rafiki last December; however, tonight’s showing at the Byrd Theatre will be this critically acclaimed movie’s official cinema debut in the Commonwealth.
At 7pm tonight, Rafiki will kick off the first night of MonGays, a queer film series celebrating the LGBTQ+ community every Monday during Pride Month, organized by Virginia Pride. With the help of MonGays Creative Director Wyatt Gordon, this week’s sponsor, Diversity Richmond, chose the movie due to its beautiful depiction of two black and bold young women who dare to live their truth. If you need a good laugh, cry, or date night tonight, there is no better place to be than MonGays.