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Saturday, September 24, 2016

Queen of Katwe - A Film Review

I liked Queen of Katwe. It is a new movie directed by Mira Nair and written by William Wheeler, and is based on a true story about a Ugandan girl named Phiona Mutesi who was a chess prodigy in 2007 at about 10 years old, and develops her craft with the help of her teacher, but is conflicted between wanting international success and a life out of the slums of Katwe in Kampala, while also respecting her family and not wanting to act better than her surroundings.

Lupita Nyong'o played her mother Nakku Harriet, who is struggling to keep her family together as a widow in poverty. Nyong'o beautifully portrays her as a woman who deeply loves her children, but is stressed by the fears of not having enough food, shelter, or money, or her late husband, and often comes into conflict when her daughter wants more independence or her teacher promises prize winnings for her talent abroad. Her oldest daughter left home for a fast life in the city, and Harriet is determined that her children will not be tempted by vice and will stay true to working honestly for a better life.

It was also personally impressive to see her in this role, having seen her on Broadway this year in Eclipsed, playing a teen sex trafficking victim, and her versatile talent in her thirties allows her to be both convincing as a scared and emotionally traumatized young girl, and a steely mother of four children who is hardened by life and doesn't have patience for foolishness or chasing fruitless dreams.

David Oyelowo played her teacher, Robert Katende, who is kind and sympathetic and wants to use chess as a way to better the lives of his students and their community. He is a quiet man with a loving family, and has this wonderful sense of calm about him amidst economic strife. Whether he has to  play football to raise money for his students' tournament expenses, or continually bother the local head of sports and recreation to consider his students for international opportunities, he stays positive while never giving up on his kids. While he pushes Phiona to succeed and use her chess talents as a higher economic opportunity, he also warns her against losing her focus through greed and neglecting her family responsibilities, reminding her that her chess strategy is a metaphor for navigating life and not being knocked down by hardship.

Madina Nalwanga was wonderful in this role, and I liked how nuanced she could be in her portrayal of Phiona, between being a smart young girl who started out being modest about her talent, as she is illiterate and rarely been to school, yet had a remarkable ability to strategize and predict others' plays in the game through intuition. But when her success takes her abroad and she wins more awards, she starts getting cocky and overconfident, and ignores her teacher's warnings about her greed, repeating to him, "I'm going to win." 

When Phiona is having dinner with her family after winning a tournament in Sudan and soaking up the privileges of a luxury hotel, eating a modest dish after having enjoyed ice cream floats, her perspective looks at the tin roof shack, the clothes hanging from the clothesline, and it suddenly feels too small and limiting for a talent like hers. It is a quiet and poignant scene that speaks a lot about a young girl both experiencing the pleasures of travel as well as coming into adolescence and wanting to grow up faster.

The film also touched on the aftermath of life after the Ugandan civil war, with lost loved ones, poverty, rebuilding societies, and mixed emotions about how far to reach for success while still staying true to their culture and family. And the class differences were stark in a sequence where the kids from the slums play against kids at a private school, showing different aspects of Ugandan life and class and money. The children are dressed in bright hand-me-down clothing in contrast with the private school students' crisp navy blue and white uniforms; they tear into their chicken by hand instead of using utensils; and they ignore their cots for the comfort of sleeping amongst each other on the floor. Katende, to cheer up the kids when they are homesick and suffering anxiety attacks before the tournament, tells them a story about a dog and a cat which is an analogy for their class struggles vs. the rich, and it is a wonderful moment of the film when the children's faces are shining, knowing that they are stronger than the rich because they work harder for what they want, and it brings a greater satisfaction than having unearned privilege handed to them by birth.

The film was made by Disney, but rises above typical feel-good clich├ęs, and has more depth to it due to the excellent talent involved in front and behind the camera. Mira Nair joked that this is the first Disney film set in Africa without any animals in it. Nair has a stunning reputation as a director of art-house films (Monsoon Wedding, Mississippi Masala, The Namesake) and Hollywood films (The Aviator, Vanity Fair), and her talent for highlighting complex stories about women is on point in this film. Queen of Katwe is a great film for children to see because it celebrates a young black African girl from a poor background becoming a world-class chess master at nearly 20 years old today. The world needs more positive on-screen depictions of black people and of Africa as a multicultural continent beyond news media of war and strife, and this is a lovely film that deserves to be recognized.

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