DIRECTED BY MIRA NAIR/2016
A funny thing happens when you walk through certain doors. Nothing could have prepared Phiona Mutesi (Madina Nalwanga) for the life she would end up with when she entered the small youth ministry building where Robert Katende (David Oyelowo-Selma) was working with several children and teenagers and teaching them the game of chess. This game would take this young girl with no education and turn her into an ambassador for her country and one of the best chess players under the age of 18 in the world.
The screenplay by William Wheeler comes from the ESPN article and book by Tim Crothers chronicling this girl’s journey from corn seller on the streets of Kampala, to a hero of Uganda. At first glance, much of this story on the surface reminded me of Disney’s film Cool Runnings (1992), which was also a true story of unlikely individuals finding themselves on the world’s stage. Queen of Katwe is another type of film altogether.
Disney, in allowing a strong director to do things her way and break the typical formula, creates a story that still inspires but actually becomes a strong character-driven film, capable of standing shoulder to shoulder with some of the better films released this year.
While it is an inspirational tale, Queen of Katwe is rooted firmly in being a character driven story, rather than a lighthearted and comedic take on a real event that characterized Cool Runnings. This is a testament to Mira Nair (Monsoon Wedding, Mississippi Masala) who has lived in Kampala for nearly 30 years, and who has captured the true essence of this great city at every level. Having spent nearly 2 weeks in Uganda a few years ago, this film was a great reminder to me of the beautiful people and enduring spirit that characterizes the citizens of Kampala.
Newcomer Madina Nalwanga captivates the audience in her portrayal of this young 11 year old girl who, along with her siblings, struggles each day with her mother Nakku Harriet (Lupita Nyong’o-12 Years a Slave, Star Wars: The Force Awakens, The Jungle Book) selling corn to barely afford a small wooden shanty on a busy street that they all call home. The fact that she holds her own alongside an Academy Award Winner like Lupita Nyong’o and someone with the acting pedigree of David Oyelowo is simply amazing for someone who had never even seen a movie before being cast in this film.
Queen of Katwe is a film that takes its time. For anyone who has been to Uganda, this is a great compliment. Unlike the western audiences who will mostly be seeing this film, the people of Kampala understand the beauty of each moment and experience, with the journey being much more important oftentimes than the destination. This may contrast with the Western audience who may want more of a Rocky-style approach where the stakes are emotionally high so that we can all cheer when the protagonist finally triumphs. Queen of Katwe certainly has its moments of victory, but it understands that the stakes for young Phiona are at the highest level they can be already in just trying to survive the life she leads. This is what makes her real-life journey all the more joyous.
I’d like to echo what David Oyelowo said in a Q&A following the screening of this film, in how this film is different from what is usually produced in the Hollywood system when it involves a story like this. He said that usually the point of view for a film like this would be that of the coach who finds a diamond in the rough, or turns a losing situation into a moment of greatness. Think about Remember the Titans, The Mighty Ducks, and Cool Runnings, as examples of where Disney has done this before to great success. You would especially expect this given the fact that you have David Oyelowo playing the educated engineer who takes the time to work with these kids while searching for an engineering job. What a great story that would be if he encourages this poor uneducated girl find success.
Disney trusts Mira Nair to focus the story on an 11-year old girl, played by a girl who has never acted before, and surround her with two strong performers, while the rest of the cast is mostly locals. To say that this is not Hollywood’s normal comfort zone would be an understatement, and it is a testament to Disney to take this risk. I must say, before we see the Box office for this film, that it was this decision, and several others, that make this film so much more authentic and genuinely inspiring than it would have been if conventional wisdom would have won out.
While it is a Disney film, and is safe for most of the entire family, it does not seek to bend the story to fit into a typical Disney formula. This may mean that the film is slower than some would like, especially if young kids are watching, and may not maintain the constant tension needed to keep them engaged at all times. The drama, however, is so much stronger because of it and it makes the fact that you are seeing a true story all the more authentic.
The Queen of Katwe is another strong story of inspiration from a studio that is no stranger to feel-good stories. Disney, in allowing a strong director to do things her way and break the typical formula, creates a story that still inspires but actually becomes a strong character-driven film, capable of standing shoulder to shoulder with some of the better films released this year. Not a bad start for a young actress who, like the girl she is portraying, rose from the streets of Kampala selling corn to a position of representing her country and inspiring the world.