review for The Kitchen Toto on AllMovie

The Kitchen Toto (1987)
by Tom Wiener review

A coming-of-age story, combined with the familiar tale of the servant who knows too much, set against a violent political backdrop sounds like a tall order for one modestly budgeted film, but The Kitchen Toto pulls its disparate strands together neatly. Mwangi (Edwin Mahinda) has to grow up quickly when he is forced to take a job in the kitchen of John Graham (Bob Peck), a British police chief in 1950 Kenya. Mwangi knows who killed his minister father but won't cooperate with Graham, and he soon is privy to a number of secrets about the Graham family. In his one visit with his mother, he's upbraided for not bringing her a full month's wages. He knows why he was docked a week for not showing up at the house one night; Edward (Ronald Pirie), the police chief's son, left him stranded in the jungle after they were caught poaching, but Mwangi hasn't even told the boy's parents. Mwangi keeps thinking that if he never tells anyone what he knows, he can remain neutral, even after the rebels force him to take the "Thenge Oath," which required loyalty to their cause or certain death. But Mwangi finds himself impelled to protect the Grahams, even if it endangers his own life. His best friend, in no small irony, is John Graham, the main object of the rebel's wrath. Though we are sympathetic to the cause of Kenyan freedom, the violent methods of the rebels leaves us, like Mwangi, with no rooting interest but the boy's survival. Writer/director Harry Hook makes few missteps in telling this increasingly complex tale. Cinematographer Roger Deakins sees the jungle surrounding the Graham house as both alluring and menacing; there is a breathtaking shot near the end of the film with Mwangi carrying one of the Graham children past a huge, gnarled tree that hovers over them menacingly.