This is the latest installment of “Breaking Black,” a weekly column focused on emerging black talent.
Kenyan filmmaker Wanuri Kahiu is determined to combat long-standing depictions of the African continent in defeat. With her second feature film, the lesbian love story “Rafiki,” Kahiu is spearheading a burgeoning artistic movement she co-founded called “Afrobubblegum,” with the intention of promoting “a fun, fierce, and fantastical representation” of Africa. The ethos reflects a growing frustration with the way Africa is perceived around the world, and it has taken her on a journey from festival breakout to rising Hollywood talent.
The Cannes-acclaimed “Rafiki” came from a place of personal frustration, as Kahiu has experienced misperceptions about Africa up close. In a recent interview, the filmmaker recalled traveling to foreign countries to showcase her award-winning 2009 short film “Pumzi,” and being questioned by custom agents at airports about the nature of her visits. “From experience, I’ve learned to be always ready with all my paperwork to show that I’m not there to stay,” she said.
In one specific instance, she explained to immigration officials the premise of “Pumzi” — a futuristic sci-fi film set in a fictional east African territory — and was asked why the film was so important that she had to travel around the world with it.
“I couldn’t quite blame her for such an awkward question,” said Kahiu. “She wasn’t used to lions speaking, because to have the hunter always tell stories about Africa, you would think that it’s a continent full of desperation and despair. So when African artists like myself challenge that thinking with an alternate vision, often we are asked to defend our having an imagination.”
The message for Kahiu has been that, as an African filmmaker, the expectations for the stories she should tell are rigid, and they often come from non-Africans who continue to be the main financiers of top-shelf African cinema. That itself, she said, needs to be changed.
“It’s sort of like they are asking, ‘How dare you feel like you have the luxury to imagine, to create, instead of dealing with what they believe to be more important issues facing Africans?'” she said. These issues include “poverty, famine, war, disease and those very incomplete single stories that are prevalent about the continent.”
She added Africans have often taken the reductive narratives about their continent for granted, which has limited the creative potential for filmmakers there. To that end, she started Afrobubblegum — a movement inclusive of artists of all kinds — in 2017 to curate, commission and produce what she describes as “fun work that celebrates the joy, love and happiness of Africa.” And it was out of this movement that “Rafiki,” a love story set in Kenya, emerged.
“I just wanted to show images of young Africans in love,” Kahiu said. “It occurred to me that the last time I saw a movie in the cinemas that told a story about young Africans in love, was very long ago, which was just so ridiculous to me that such a basic universal thing was so uncommon for us when it came to the cinema.”
Kahiu acknowledged that African love stories have existed on film before, although they have been largely relegated to home video or straight-to-TV movie offerings. “But truly cinematic African love stories are too few and far between,” she said, “and I just wanted to add our love to cinematic history with ‘Rafiki.'”
The film epitomizes what Kahiu calls the Afrobubblegum Test — which, like the Bechdel test (which measures the representation of women in fiction) comes equipped with specific criteria. In order to qualify as “Afrobubblegumist” art, a film must show at least two healthy Africans with financial stability who are “having fun and enjoying life,” per Kahiu’s breakdown on her site.
Kahiu’s philosophy stems from her upbringing in Nairobi, Kenya, where she was raised by a pediatrician mother and businessman father. She developed a passion for filmmaking as a teenager, and after moving to England, she enrolled at the University of Warwick in Coventry and majored in business management. From there, she relocated to Los Angeles and studied filmmaking at UCLA.
That experience brought her back to Kenya, where she aimed to fill a void. “It’s always been very hard to be a filmmaker in Kenya, because it’s a mostly underappreciated art,” she said. “But perceptions are shifting. As with most hurdles that might initially seem insurmountable to overcome, time is an ally.”
But filmmaking in Kenya brought some new challenges. The lesbian love story at the center of “Rafiki” resulted in the censorship of the film by the Kenya Film Classification Board, which operates under the Government of Kenya. And in order to qualify as the country’s entry under the Best Foreign Language Film category at the 2019 Academy Awards, “Rafiki” had to be released in local theaters.
The ban received international coverage, and raised awareness of the film around the world, drawing attention to the east African nation where homosexuality is a criminal offense under a colonial-era law. Eventually, the ban was lifted, although for just one week — during which time it enjoyed sold-out audiences in a single Nairobi theater.
Despite the progress the film has made, Kahiu was still shocked about the censorship experience. “Nairobi is such an incredibly cosmopolitan city that of course includes members of the LGBTQ community, who are around us, and in our lives personally, whether we want to acknowledge them or not,” she said. “So to pretend that stories like the one I tell aren’t an ongoing reality is just absurd. The fact that people came in droves to see the film speaks to this.”
She became invested in screening the film for as many people as possible throughout the country. “There were people who turned up to see why this film was being banned, and who, I have to say, were quite disappointed that it was just an innocent, little film,” she said. But they weren’t the only ones. “Young people came to watch the film, some with mothers and fathers, then went home and came out to their parents,” she said. “That was a big deal for me.”
And now her “little film” is reaching audiences in ways that African films rarely do. Film Movement has released “Rafiki” in select American cities, where reviews have been kind. The added attention has brought Kahiu attention from Hollywood: In the wake of the film’s international attention, she signed with management firm The Gotham Group, which led her to set up multiple studio gigs: First off, at Universal, she will direct “Stranger Things” breakout Millie Bobby Brown in an adaptation of Ali Benjamin’s acclaimed YA novel “The Thing About Jellyfish.” A selection of the 2017 Black List, “Jellyfish” tells the story of a young girl whose best friend dies in a drowning accident forcing her to retreat into her imagination.
And over at Amazon, Kahiu is developing “Wild Seed,” a drama series based on the first book in Octavia E. Butler’s acclaimed “Patternist” sci-fi series, which Viola Davis is set to produce. Co-written by award-winning sci-fi novelist Nnedi Okorafor and Kahiu (who also plans to direct), “Wild Seed” is a love/hate story of two African immortals who travel the ages, from pre-Colonial West Africa to the far future, as their personal battles change the course of history.
It’s the kind of imaginative, expansive story about Africans that Kahiu dreams of telling, and one that exemplifies Afrobubblegum’s “fun, fierce and fantastical” motto.
She considers “Wild Seed” a favorite of all Butler’s novels — a sweeping, at times frightening, and utterly singular work of literary fiction. By merging the spiritual with the scientific, and connecting people on the African continent with the African Diaspora globally, the adaptation couldn’t be more timely.
“The lions are speaking, or at least insisting on a way of expression that the hunter hasn’t quite heard before,” Kahiu said. “And the present couldn’t be a better time for the hunter to start to listen to that joy-filled language.”
“Rafiki” is now in theaters.