Queen of Katwe (2016)
Quietly joining the ranks of films that branch out from Hollywood’s usual “white people do things” plot, Queen of Katwe is a refreshing and unpredictable entry from Disney about a young girl in Uganda who discovers a spectacular talent for chess.
The true story follows the life of Phiona (Madina Nalwanga), a teenage girl living in the Katwe slum of Uganda’s capital Kampala with her mother Nakku Harriet (Lupita Nyong’o) and her siblings. She discovers a talent for chess at a missionary program run by sports coach Robert Katende (David Oyelowo), and soon begins to compete against children from other, richer schools. She finds friendship and a sense of belonging among the other chess players, but gradually begins to chafe under her lack of education and the extreme poverty in which her mother and family are forced to live.
Queen of Katwe relies on some of the usual clichés about exceptional people in terrible circumstances, painting a picture of Phiona’s rise from poverty in very recognizable and clean-cut terms. But, more so than most Disney films, it also closely depicts the depths of poverty in which Phiona and her family live without either romanticizing them or making them appear exceptional. This is simply their lives, and chess – of all things – might very well be their ticket out of poverty. Phiona’s mother just wants a home with a roof over it, a request seemingly impossible to satisfy. Her daughter wants a way out of the slums. As Phiona becomes increasingly dissatisfied with her family life after every chess tournament, the conflict with her mother and her younger brother increases – she no longer feels at home anywhere, unable to match her growing thirst for education with her impoverished circumstances.
Robert and Harriet both approach Phiona’s talent with love and understanding – Robert sees her as a brilliant child who needs an opportunity, while Harriet recognizes both her daughter’s talent and the undeniable struggles of her daily life. The conflict between the two develops as what they think is best for Phiona, and whether the girl can ever achieve more than just notoriety in chess competition.
Queen of Katwe is a Disney film, and so even the extreme poverty of Phiona and her family is treated with a soft-focus edge. The film avoids going into the seamier side of poverty – Phiona’s elder sister Night (Taryn Kyaze) draws her mother’s condemnation by running off with a boy on a motorbike, but this is treated as mostly ancillary to Phiona’s life. Yet the fact that this is a Disney film works to Queen of Katwe’s benefit. The film presents the day-to-day life of impoverished people rather than dwelling on suffering or violence, avoiding the usual problems of more “adult” films that tend to focus on the dreadful nature of poverty rather than the humanity of the people.
Director Mira Nair gets excellent performances out of her cast – Oyelowo and Nyong’o are predictably good in their respective roles, but the children really steal the film. Newcomer Madina Malwanga turns in a riveting lead performance, fully embodying Phiona and lending her the depth necessary to carry the film. She avoids being overshadowed by the older and more experienced actors – no mean feat, given the calibre of acting on display here.
Queen of Katwe‘s sole weakness lies in the somewhat meandering nature of its story. Nair chooses to bookend the film with an important chess match, but the efficacy of those bookends make the rest of the narrative feel arcless. Phiona’s development from gifted amateur to a potential Grand Master forms the main focus of the story, but secondary plot threads threaten to imbalance the narrative. The film occasionally loses focus, eliding over important events and puncturing the development of suspense. While this doesn’t condemn the film, it does lessen the dramatic impact.
This Blu-ray release is as lovely and rich as one would expect from a Disney Blu-ray. Nair makes use of her usual vibrant color palette, here presented in sharp HD. The extra features include deleted scenes and an audio commentary with Nair that serve to flesh out the story. Two featurettes, including a short film about Robert Katende, explain the background of the real people on which Queen of Katwe is based, while Disney gets in its musical product placement with an Alicia Keys music video. As usual, the film is the major attraction on this disc, but the behind-the-scenes featurettes are especially informative and showcase the reality behind the gloss.
A smart and interesting story that seeks neither to romanticize nor pity its protagonists, Queen of Katwe is a strong entry into Disney’s live action world.