May 8, 2021

DCTRS

Damascus Center for Theoretical and Civil Rights Studies

‘Softie’ review: Kenyan photojournalist turns political activist

“Country comes first,” Boniface “Softie” Mwangi utters with certitude when discussing his priorities in a defining moment of Sam Soko’s exceptional documentary “Softie” (the film won a special jury award for editing at Sundance in 2020). For the fearless figure, a beacon of integrity in corruption-ridden Kenya, his crusade for change doesn’t respond to a power-grabbing endgame but a genuine commitment to ensuring a brighter future for his children — even if it entails not being present in their lives. His wife Njeri vehemently disapproves of his stance.

Soko dexterously traces Mwangi’s involvement in his country’s political process and turmoil from his days as a daring photojournalist covering the brutal postelection violence of 2007, as a vocal activist staging histrionic protests and as a left-field candidate running for parliament in 2017, the movie’s focus. His charismatic and unwavering personality projects throughout. We buy his intentions.

Built more out of dynamic on-site footage than on-camera interviews, the director weaves together three distinct yet correlated, dramatic streams: Mwangi’s drifting family life, the difficulties facing his grassroots campaign and the historical episodes that brought the African nation to this critical point and which have hindered its economic growth. Of those, the divisive tribalism that British colonialists implanted has been responsible for widespread social ills in Kenya after its independence.

Rendering Mwangi in nuanced observation, Soko shows his momentary disenchantment with his ideals in the face of a rotten system where anyone opposing the established power runs the risk of being murdered and where the impoverished population expects bribes for votes. He is only one man trying to uproot ingrained dishonesty. More significantly, Soko gives voice to Njeri, who fears for their children’s safety and whose sacrifices grant Mwangi the space to fight. Exiled in the U.S., she questions her place on his crowded plate.

For Mwangi, “Softie” serves as testament of the domesticity he’s been absent from to satisfy the demands of his thankless vocation. But for the rest of us, it stands as a portrait of the kind of selfless, unifying and much-needed patriotism, from both Mwangi and Njeri, that could enact improvement if more subscribed to it wholeheartedly.

‘Softie’

In English and Swahili with English subtitles

Not Rated

Running time: 1 hour, 36 minutes

Playing: Available at Laemmle Virtual Cinema and other virtual cinemas