A Ugandan Variation
There are doubtless many good reasons for choosing to be suspicious of major media and entertainment companies, especially ones which spend much of their time talking about social values and positivity and hardly ever mention how machine-tooled their operations are when it comes to separating money from small people and their hapless parents. (One prominent member of this site has been known to eschew the avuncular diminutive in favour of muttering balefully about 'Walter Disney' whenever the topic of his corporation comes up.)
Still, one should generally try to keep an open mind: I was about to suggest that I rarely go and see a Disney movie, but now that they own Marvel and are making their own franchise of stellar conflict related films, that's obviously not true. Perhaps it's better to say that I rarely see movies made by Disney under their own marque, but I made an exception to go and see Mira Nair's Queen of Katwe, a co-production between the Mouse House and the sports network ESPN (which I am given to understand is yet another Disney subsidiary).
As the involvement of ESPN might suggest, this is a sports movie, which would normally be another reason for me not to go anywhere near it, but it's a fairly unusual one, as the sport in question is chess. Now, I admire chess and its players very much, but this is more of one of those from-afar kinds of admiration, apart from a brief period when I played for my university's team, with rather variable results (probably due to my devil-may-care decision to employ the Grob Attack and Orangutan Opening on a regular basis). My current record against my laptop is rather good, but this is mainly due to steady use of the 'undo' key after making a dubious move.
Queen of Katwe (NB: apparently the last word is not pronounced 'cat wee') concerns a player who probably doesn't need to use the 'undo' key at all, Phiona Mutesi. Chess prodigies are, of course, incredibly rare, female ones even rarer, and for a chess prodigy to emerge from the ghettos of Kampala... well, perhaps you can see why someone decided there was a movie in Phiona Mutesi's story.
The story begins in 2007, with Phiona (Madina Nalwanga), her mother (Lupita Nyong'o) and siblings living in what I can only describe as conditions of extreme poverty in Katwe, a slum outside Kampala, Uganda. (Phiona's father was a victim of the HIV epidemic, though the film doesn't really go into this in detail.) As the film opens she is illiterate, can't afford to go to school, and spends her days selling vegetables in the street simply in order for the family to survive.
Then she meets Robert Katende (David Oyelowo), an unemployed engineer who is running a number of sports outreach programmes for slum children. Some children are not allowed to play football, as their parents wouldn't be able to pay the medical bills if they got injured, and so Katende is also overseeing a chess group, the Pioneers. And it is here that Phiona first encounters the magic of the sixty-four squares.
The film charts her rise to success and recognition over the next five years, and the effects of this on her, her family, and Katende. I would be lying if I said there was a great deal of originality in most of the narrative beats – Phiona's mother initially disapproves, Katende's team of slum players are initially disparaged and scorned by their wealthier opponents and the Ugandan chess establishment, success and failure both take their toll on Phiona, and so on – but the story is so well-told and the performances so engaging that this really isn't an issue.
I suppose one might also suggest that a set formula has been established for how films set in sub-Saharan Africa are generally presented: anything about human rights or the Rwandan genocide has a dignified gravitas and most likely Ladysmith Black Mambazo on the soundtrack, while more mainstream, crowdpleasing fare has slightly livelier tunes, an exceedingly bright colour palette, and its credits in a font where the letters are multicoloured and jump around on the screen. And, sure enough, Queen of Katwe adheres to the latter set of tenets fairly closely – but, once again, it's not actually a problem with the film, as it suits the tone and style of it rather well.
Much of the success of this film is down to its command of simple storytelling virtues – the script is strong, the direction extremely capable, and there are winning performances from the child actors and powerful ones from the adults. It's not surprising that David Oyelowo is starting to draw regular attention from awards committees, for he is a gifted actor of considerable range, and his work here is no exception. Lupita Nyong'o is also good, although her part has somewhat less depth and room to manoeuver.
The film does have the issue that it is, ultimately, about chess, a game which is not necessarily always the most cinematic of pastimes. Probably sensibly, it doesn't even attempt to teach the rules of the game to the uninitiated, beyond those which are absolutely essential to the plot, but I think it perhaps does grant a sense of how beautifully complex and at the same time brutally unforgiving the game can be. It is perhaps a bit too Hollywood in the way that it depicts supposedly good players looking visibly staggered when taken by surprise by an unexpected move from their opponent near the end of a game, but I suppose this is the nature of the beast; at least it doesn't show every match being concluded with a surprise mate.
You could be forgiven for assuming that a based-on-a-true-story Disney film is not going to be especially hard-hitting, but I think it would be really stretching a point to suggest that Queen of Katye presents a rose-coloured or sentimental picture of life in the slums of Kampala: the film doesn't openly grind an axe, but it doesn't shy away from showing just how gruellingly horrible an existence this is. Some quite strong material is alluded to, and while the underlying question – how can we permit this to continue and call ourselves humane and civilised? – remains implicit, it is unmistakable.
In the end I found Queen of Katwe to be an unexpected treat – engaging, thought-provoking, surprisingly life-affirming, and in places very moving indeed. If you only go to see one film about women's chess in Uganda this year, you should make it this one.