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Queen of Katwe, directed by Mira Nair of Monsoon Wedding fame, tells the real-life story of chess prodigy Phiona Mutesi. Growing up in the Katwe slums of Uganda, she meets chess coach Robert Katende and discovers she has a talent that could offer her a way out of poverty. So far, so rags-to-riches. But this is a film that confounds expectations. For one, it is a sport’s movie about chess. But it is also a Disney movie about Africa that is actually willing to engage with the real world.
There is something about seeing the words ‘Disney’ alongside ‘true story’ in the opening titles that rings alarm bells. The fear is that the need to present a ‘safe’ version of events will sanitise the story and leave us with something that doesn’t ring true. To her credit, Nair does a fine job of avoiding that trap. I do admit that in the first few minutes I found it difficult to stop myself ticking off clichés. Technicolour ‘Africanised’ credits – check. A vibrant soundtrack of local pop music – check. Soaring strings flagging up the key moments in the chess matches –check. Liberal use of sports metaphors that we can all learn from – “You mean the small one [the pawn] can become the big one [the queen]?” – checkmate. But this is a family film and it would take a much harder heart than mine not to be won over by it.
First of all, the acting is superb. David Oyelowo, so mesmerising as Martin Luther King in Selma, exudes conviction as a man who, having pulled himself up from the gutter, clings to his faith that he can help his pupils do the same. Lupita Nyong’o won an Oscar in 12 Years a Slave and is just as good here. As Phiona’s mother Harriet, she shows us that the daily fight for her family’s integrity and survival is every bit as heroic an achievement as her daughter’s. Newcomer Madina Nalwanga, as the eponymous ‘Queen’ Phiona, convinces in the role. A dancer plucked from Katwe herself, she mesmerises, holding our attention even when her character is saying nothing.
But what is most impressive about this film is that, for all that it is suitable for its PG audience, it does not shy away from the difficult issues. Teenage pregnancy, homelessness, crippling hierarchies and class structures both in the slums and beyond; the despair faced by the people of Katwe is very real. And for all that Phiona’s story offers hope, we are often subtly reminded about those left behind. Particularly poignant for me is when a fellow corn seller tries to reassure Harriet: “Don’t worry, if Phiona doesn’t win, our daughters can always work together.” Harriet’s reply is determined: “My daughter will win”. But, of course, the question of the fate of the friend’s daughter is left hanging.
In interviews, the main stars have spoken proudly about how, for a Disney film, Queen of Katwe is quite subversive. It is an African story, set entirely in Africa, without the need for an ‘outsider’ character to make things more palatable to a western audience. It is genuinely refreshing that, in a mainstream film, the experiences of Africans are allowed to speak universally in their own right.
There are things towards the end of the film that initially feel a little too ‘nice’ after what we have seen. But Nair uses the closing credits, where the actors appear alongside the real life person they portray and we learn what has happened to them since, as a gentle reminder that this is a story that really did happen. Sometimes we need real stories of real people overcoming the odds. When they are handled as sensitively as in Queen of Katwe, they make for films that are inspirational indeed.