The Lion King stars black performers from across the diaspora but remains at its heart a specifically African story. Not only does it take place in Sub-Saharan Africa, but iconic songs like “Hakuna Matata” borrow terminology from Swahili. But the themes also resonate in many countries there, as Dr. John Kani so eloquently explained. “I thought to myself, it happens in Africa…. Therefore, it is an African story.”
At the Disney press conference celebrating The Lion King, Dr. Kani addressed the added layers of authenticity in the recent reimagining. While playing Rafiki, he added important touches such as speaking Xhosa. But he also brought a fresh perspective to the role, saying, “We are both over 75, so we both lived. We both walked through that forest.” As a renowned actor, director and playwright, he strove to find himself in Rafiki – and succeeded. “I’m very grateful to [Jon Favreau], it doesn’t look like me. But he is like me, which is fantastic.”
Dr. Kani felt that he would not be the only one to feel the deep sense of connection to the characters of The Lion King. “I’m looking forward to our premier in Johannesburg,” he added. “Where it will be full of all African people who are looking for something that is about them.”
“Everything we see on the play in the screen, we read, we take [seriously]. We take that it speaks to me. And so wonderful to see how the Johannesburg South African audiences will say what does it say to me? What does it make me feel? Why am I celebrating it? Is it humanity? Is it us, is it our dignity? Our future? And is it what we want to tell our children? Because we’re only 25 years in our democracy. I went to the American embassy in South Africa and understood you guys were celebrating 243 years of democracy and they ain’t got it right yet.”
Dr. John Kani Talks Resilience in the Face of Scar
The threat of Scar looms large over The Lion King, and he is a tyrant many are familiar with. Aside from his Disney villain fame and chill-inducing song, he also speaks to dictatorships in the real world. Dr. Kani pointed out that even the United States is no stranger to power run amok, but it felt particularly personal to him.
“Watching [The Lion King] last night, I kept praying. ‘Please God, not another Scar in Africa,’” the acclaimed playwright admitted. “’We’ve gone through terrible times. Let other people have Scar. Not us now. It’s enough for us’. So that for me was the kind of resonance and relevance [I find] in everything I do.”
In that sense, Simba’s story represents those of us who witness injustice and must eventually take a stand against it. Hopefully we each have a guide like Rafiki, or Dr. John Kani, when we do. Share your thoughts on The Lion King in the comments below, and check That Hashtag Show for the latest news on your favorite films.