‘Queen of Katwe’

Billy Elliot meets Cool Runnings.


An impoverished child, Madina Nalwanga (Phiona Mutesi), from Uganda, becomes a Chess champion through her innate ability to play, and a giving teacher, David Oyelowo (Robert Katende).

Madina, in her first film role, adeptly balances drive with intelligence. Phiona is not literate. Saying she lives in poverty would be polite. In the frenetic streets of Uganda, she lives by selling the seasoned corn made by her mother, Lupita Nyong’o (Nakku Harriet). But Phiona “knows” chess. Phiona pushes this talent when she stumbles upon a chess center run by MLK…I mean…David Oyelowo.

Queen of Katwe is steeped in classism and sexism. Robert is a highly trained engineer. He is giving. He has a family. No one will employ him. He has no family name. Without a family name, his degree is almost worthless. Phiona is naturally intelligent. Hardworking. Meticulous. She is poor. She is a woman. She’s trying to play chess, which has no “real-world” value at her economic level. However, she has Robert, who can train and teach her.

This is a Disney film. You20161026_173140’re going to get Disney whitewashing. In one of the more poignant moments of the film, Robert holds his baby and references the Congo wars of the 90’s. Mentioned in passing, it’s fleeting. There are multiple allusions to prostitution. But they are allusions. There are moments when Phiona becomes too “full” of herself. Refusing to do household chores (Phiona passes unscathed in her self reflections). Mentioned in passing, they’re fleeting. If it weren’t Disney, these instances would be less fleeting. There would be a different film, but a better film.

Mira Nair (Salaam Bombay) is too quick to cast Lupita as the dumb mother. Phiona is uneducated. She’s not dumb. However, the same does not hold for Lupita. Instead, much like Billy Elliot’s father, she sees no value in her child’s craft. She is suspicious of others who could take advantage of Phiona. She is suspicious of Phiona. This paranoia is stretched too thin without more foregrounding. However, Nair’s eye for soothing colors (light blue and green), and her ability to show a world outside of Phiona’s one room home, gives the film and Uganda life.

Sometimes Nair is too talented. Other than a couple of scenes, Uganda appears to be a great place. Even sleeping on the street appears to present no danger, other than flooding. While Uganda is not the wild west, it’s not Mayberry either. While it is refreshing to see an African country represented as having high-class schools, well populated and colorful cities, and nuclear families, it is misleading to only touch upon on the “quiet” areas around Phiona. Why is Uganda filled with one room huts? The film takes it as fact. It takes it as exotic. It takes it as vibrant. It takes it as beautiful. It can be all these, but it has to be more. It has to be more than surface.

Queen of Katwe was enjoyable for what it was. It was Disney through and through. It was…in a galaxy far, far, away…you…feel the rhythmfeel the rhyme…if you’re feeling like…I’m not a puff…then it was…a most violent year…so…. it’s bobsled timeQueen of Katwe!

Check out my previous review of The Accountant.

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