John Kani's Heartfelt Hope for Families Watching The Lion King

Sitting across from John Kani is something special. The actor has a presence about him which offers a vibrant sense of someone wise, something very much worth listening to, the moment he starts talking. The South African accent makes it all that much more magical but the man has so many life experiences accompanying his impressive acting resumé that it's easy to get lost in his words. The actor will next be on the big screen for The Lion King, lending his voice to the remade edition of Rafiki, a character who carries the metaphorical torch of hope when Simba flees the Pridelands. In speaking to, Kani hopes that audiences takes away a lesson from The Lion King similar to the one which Simba learns in its narrative.

"The role of the elders within each and every community," is something which Kani thinks is too often overlooked in today's society. "We tend to ship our parents as soon as they retire into some retirement home in Florida, and have people who are caregivers, and nurses, and managers of these homes to take care of them," Kani said. "We've robbed the present generation of the handing over of the legacy, and the stories, and the history of our people or your particular family."

There are metaphors for these real life roles throughout The Lion King.

"The role that is played by the presence of Mufasa, before he dies, and the presence of Rafiki is like a historian who is charged as a custodian of the culture of this pride of lions, and the legacy of Mufasa," Kani says. "You even believe that Rafiki was there when Mufasa was born. He was the one who inaugurated Mufasa as head of the Pride, as he did with Simba, as he will do to continue generations down until he walks into the sunset after presenting Simba's son who is now heir to the throne of the lion Pride kingdom."

In particular, he hopes that conversations will spawn from this movie amongst families. "It's something African audience, or an audience anywhere would realize that we need to talk to our children," Kani said. "We need to tell them who we are. Sometimes children get disappointed with us about we were not as successful as Bill Gates. We didn't become president, though we didn't want to be president. Not with the kind of presidents we have now.
I sat there last night and I thought, 'I think Mufasa was Nelson Mandela?' Do you think after Nelson Mandela we start with Scar?"

Coming from a true African heritage, Kani can use real life experiences to prepare for roles like Rafiki and T'Chaka in Black Panther. "The only reference in my life is my life, and it's my life experience. It's my environment. It's my community. I've not made that for books," Kani said. "I started to get my doctorate, not to be called 'doctor.' Those are just little things you get to get recognition. But in real life I suck and suckle from the people within my community. I remember the words of my grandmother who died at 102. I remember my great mother, Grand Brika, who died at the age of 106. They talked to us all the time. And my grandmother even lied to me. She said there was royalty. She said that my great-great-great grandfather was the king of the outer Thembu. I didn't realize it was preparing me for the onslaught of the dehumanizing system called Apartheid so that I don't get lost, or lose the battle for my own dignity and humanity."


For Kani, The Lion King is something deeper than a movie, and it may have the lasting impact he hopes to see, being the remake of one of the most popular animated films Disney has ever released.

The Lion King hits theaters on July 18.