Queen of Katwe

October 5, 2016

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Coming into existence under the Disney banner, it’s easy to dismiss Mira Nair’s Queen of Katwe at first glance as your typical, live-action inspirational sports film. Easy going, the expected story beats and climax, and the fuzzy feeling at the end with just a bit of guidance and some determination anyone can achieve their dreams. There’s a fair amount of that, though only occasionally does its sentimentality get the better of it, but what’s surprising is just how much it, if not subverts the formula, it takes a sideways glance at it. Indeed, the film’s most significant problem is the way it tends to rush through the expected plot points and scenes just to get them overwith. In a lot of ways, Queen of Katwe is the kind of coming-of-age drama we’ve come to expect from the art house circuit rather than the Disney feel-good production line.

Following the true story of chess prodigy Phiona Mutesi (newcomer Madina Nalwanga), a girl hailing from the slums of Katwe in Uganda, the story spans several years, from her time first learning the game to her eventual success at an international competition. Helping her is a frustrated engineer turned youth sports outreach coach, Robert (David Oleyowo) and her understandably suspicious mother, Nakku (Lupita Nyong’o). Phiona’s father died, leaving the family in deep poverty and forced to sell maize in markets or in traffic jams to pay the rent on what could be generously described as a hovel. The film draws sharp class distinctions between Phiona and her family and the “city kids” – middle class kids afforded the opportunity to have a proper education that is just not possible for the children of the slums. Indeed, the desperation of the economic plight of Phiona and her mother is unsparing considering the genre, and one of the film’s strongest attributes is the way it takes its time showing the processes of day to day living without sanitizing it or, perhaps its greatest trick, never falling into the trap of poverty porn. Shot in the actual slums of Katwe, Nair and cinematographer Sean Bobbitt capture the vibrant colors of a working, surviving community whilst never shying away from the muddy water or the gaping holes in the sheet metal walls. A sequence where the kids first travel to a posh school for a tournament, where they walk through large halls and one kid, silhouetted through a doorway, sees a cricket match being played by the students. The culture (class) shock is palpable for the kids and even somewhat embarrassing for Robert, who hails from the bush but made his ways through similar halls. His speech to the kids when they want to leave deftly sidesteps the kind of corniness one would expect by helping the children understand that where they’re from is part of their strength.

The utter respect for everyone of these people is where the film shines. Rather than simply creating a horror to be escaped from, Nair depicts a stifling economic reality and never gives any delusion that it’s all within the power of the individual to get out of it. The condescending narrative of Western, “liberal” culture is so pervasive in any kind of film that purports to be “inspirational” that Nair and her screenwriter, William Wheeler, is a breath of fresh air. In that sense, the film belongs to Nyong’o and her depiction of Nakku as both full of pride and utterly desperate whilst always maintaining herself in front of her children. Her vast reserves of dignity sit comfortably alongside her moments of fear and doubt. There’s a gorgeous scene where she puts on her most vibrantly beautiful dress, and marches to a shop to sell it, and Nyong’o manages to convey both the sadness of selling one of her most prized possessions whilst also wearing it with pride. The relationship between material goods and identity is complicated and forever poking around the sides of the world of Katwe.

The final half hour, where the film is obligated to go through the typical beats (Pride before the fall! Reconciliation!) and all the heartwarming messages inherent to the story, is its weakest, but it’s hardly as bad as it could be by mostly avoiding anything too treacly. Some on-the-nose dialogue is counterbalanced by a little dance in the street to sell spices, and a match-time outburst by Robert is given heft by Oyelowo’s belief that, yes, she really does belong there. It’s ending is thoroughly Disney, but it’s observational pace and it’s subtle emphasis on growing up, class clashes, finding the power in being a woman, is tantalizingly art house. A film featuring an almost entirely Black cast, set in Africa, and dealing with these issues ticks a lot of boxes that Hollywood should endeavor to care about more, but the qualities of Queen of Katwe are in its storytelling, its acting, and its artistic qualities, not in its premise.

-M

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