Film Review – Queen of Katwe
Queen of Katwe
Moving, uplifting, important. All of these words can be used describe Disney’s new feel good family film Queen of Katwe. What’s wonderful here however is that this movie is all of those things, due both to the retelling of a compelling true story and some impeccable acting, but without being cloying or saccharine. Usually when you think Disney and uplifting children’s stories, you imagine a movie is going to be fake and manipulative. But this film is deft at telling what could otherwise have come off as preachy.
Newcomer Madina Nalwanga stars as Phiona. She lives with her mother (an impressive Lupita Nyong’o), her older rebellious sister and younger brothers in essentially the poorest part of Uganda. These are folks who live in one room metal shacks with no floor. They make ends meet by selling maize on the streets. None of the kids attend school because that expense is well beyond their monetary reach. Meanwhile, Robert Katende (a dazzling David Oyelowo) accepts a position at the local ministry to support his new family while eagerly waiting a job as an engineer. He task of helping local kids he begins as just a job. Some of the children are interested in playing soccer, but since they are young and small, he introduces them to the game of chess. It’s meant to teach them mental discipline and planning. Keep in mind, these children have such bleak prospects that the mere thought of thinking beyond today hadn’t occurred to them. Phiona, though shy, is urged by Robert to join the chess class. It quickly becomes apparent that she has a natural talent for the game.
This is incredibly unusual in this village. Most of these children, including Phiona, can’t read. And especially being a girl, the thought of her beating rivals of any kind is laughable. But the beauty of chess is there can be a quantifiable winner. Her classmates quickly recognize and respect her game. She eventually can even outplay her teacher. It’s the remarkable idea of finding a prodigy in literally one of the harshest places on earth.
But Robert wants to foster this gift over the course of some years. He introduces them to the idea of playing in nationally ranked tournaments. When the kids travel to their first one hosted by a private school, they are awestruck by the clean surroundings and plentiful food. In one of the most simply moving moments, their first night at the tournament, Robert walks in to find his group of kids sleeping in pile on the floor because it is obvious that they don’t even recognize the comfortable beds they’ve been provided are an option. They start from a place of not knowing most modern conveniences exist.
Phiona proves herself very capable at chess against the private school children. But of course obstacles at home exist. Her mother is reluctant every step of the way. This is a young, impoverished, single mother who is desperately working for the survival of all of her children daily. At one point, when one of her children gets seriously injured, they have to use all of their money just to get him a ride to the hospital. Once there, after getting basic treatment, she has to yank the IV out his arm and walk him out to avoid the hospital going after them for payment. They return to find they’ve been evicted from the meager shack of a home that they had. These are truly desperate people.
But Phiona’s gift with chess is able to help lift them up. As she continues playing in notable tournaments, everyone in the village takes notice. But she also finds she’s caught between worlds. She has tasted the fine things cities and private schools have to offer, so it becomes increasingly difficult for her to return her family’s desperation. On the other hand, she deeply loves her mother and siblings. And this is a world where options for girls are very limited. Both her mother and her take flack for not simply finding a man to marry.
Queen of Katwe is a terrific family film. Directed by Mira Nair, best known for Monsoon Wedding, Mississippi Masala, and Salaam Bombay, this movie is both thoughtful and entertaining. Without being heavy handed, this story tackles class, prospects for females, family dynamics, and all while showing a lifestyle that is more difficult than most of us will ever dream of experiencing thankfully.
The acting here is terrific. The cast of children are all natural and wonderful. They are real, full of energy and hope. The lead actress in particular is great at the hardest of film acting skills of showing more by doing less. This girl is thinking all the time. You believe her as a both a sincere child and a strategic genius. Meanwhile, both Nyong’o and Oyelowo are both exquisite. One of them has already won an Oscar of course, and there is no reason both of them won’t win more in the future. Nyong’o in particular is strong and magnificent. Her character isn’t being contrary to her daughter’s rising prospects out of some sort of jealousy or malice. In a more typical movie her character would be mean just to be an antagonistic plot device. But this woman’s motivations are clear and genuine.
This movie is not only entertaining and moving, it is also important. I would dare say it’s one of the more important movies you could see this year.
From #OscarSoWhite to the multiyear criticisms of Hollywood over sexism and racism, the Queen of Katwe is a massive antidote to all of that. This is a movie directed by a talented Indian woman and features an entirely African cast. Unlike almost every other mainstream movie set in the third world, there is not white Western protagonist that introduces our American viewership to this society as an outsider and then eventually becomes some sort of savior to the natives. This movie is about the actual people who actually live in this village. There isn’t a white fact to be seen during the entire running time of the film. Because, surprise surprise, people who actually live in the Africa actually have their own stories too. Not every Third World story needs to be examined through First World eyes.
And just as importantly, and much to their credit so good on them, this movie has the backing of Disney. You can’t get more mainstream Hollywood than Disney. People are always lamenting there aren’t enough decent, uplifting family films that aren’t just advertisements filled with pop culture references. This is one. You want a positive message? Look right here. People lament women don’t get the chance to direct. Here a woman does. People complain there aren’t enough minority faces playing full-fledged characters. Here they are. And people complain there aren’t enough female protagonists. Here is one.
So it’s important to support this movie because money speaks in Hollywood. If we want more movies that fit those criteria, you have to vote with your pocket book when something worthy like Queen of Katwe comes out. This kind of positive film needs to be fostered by everyone.
It also happens to be an excellent movie. So that helps too.