The Mafu Cage (1978)

The Mafu Cage
Director: Karen Arthur
Writer: Don Chastain
Based on: Éric Westphal’s play Toi et Tes Nuages
Cast: Lee Grant, Carol Kane, Will Geer, James Olson
Part of: /slash Filmfestival
Seen on: 22.9.2019

Content Note: racism, ableism/saneism

When they were children, Ellen (Lee Grant) and Cissy (Carol Kane) lived in Africa with their father, an anthropologist. But he has passed on, they returned to the USA and Ellen has been taken care of Cissy ever since. And volatile Cissy needs a lot of taking care of. Living in a crumbling mansion filled with the mementos of their fathers work, Cissy clings to a roster of pet apes and spends all of her time at home, while Ellen has a job and at least pretends at a more usual life. When Ellen gets a new boyfriend, David (James Olson), the dynamics between the two sisters shift.

The Mafu Cage is an interesting film that does have a few weaknesses. Most notably, it doesn’t deal with the racist and ableist connotations of its story. Still, it’s definitely engaging enough that it is worth seeing.

The film poster showing a drawing of Cissy (Carol Kane) sitting naked on a chait inside a cage.

The Mafu Cage has a lot of colonial undertones: Cissy never managed to shake her childhood in Africa and always felt more at home there than in the USA. So she dresses in “African clothes” and wears “African jewellery”. She engages in “African rituals” and so on, and so forth. I’m pretty sure that it is never actually specified which African tribe or even country she thinks she belongs to. And her connection with Africa is part of the symptoms of her mental illness.

Now, if we’re being very generous, we could say that the film argues that a white woman thinking she’s (Black) African is per se insane (and even that generous interpretation is not without issues). But to me it fellt more like the “wild Africans” were equated to the “wild crazy woman” (I feel like I don’t have enough quotation marks for this review). And that is both racist and ableist. Equally troubling is the fact that Cissy is shown to be pretty much nothing but a burden for Ellen, and we really don’t need any more of that particular ableist perspective.

Cissy (Carol Kane) is distraught.

Still, Carol Kane is fantastic as Cissy, absolutely magnetic and keeping you interested in the film even when it takes too long to get to the climax we all could see coming a mile off. Sometimes that helps with building tension, but in this case, you just wanted things to hurry up and get there already.

Generally, I found the film intriguing and I would absolutely recommend watching it – even if so much made me uncomfortable (and not in the good way). I understand why it’s considered a classic of horror.

Cissy (Carol Kane) and Ellen (Lee Grant) looking inside the cage.

Summarizing: Not unproblematic, but never uninteresting.

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