Queen of Katwe (2016)

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Walt Disney’s Queen of Katwe (2016) follows a familiar story formula and at the same time is a totally original cinema experience. How can these opposites co-exist? It is another ‘inspiring teacher’ story with a fairy tale theme of a lowly maiden who finds fame, but instead of a prince, she finds a missionary devoted to helping impoverished Ugandan children. Vivid cinematography takes you right into the villages and ghettos and walks you through dirt streets and shacks that have no windows or doors. It is this hyper-realistic photography with a mainly amateur cast that takes this film to the next level.

Ten-year old Phiona (Madina Nalwanga) sells corn on the streets of Katwe in Uganda to help her destitute single mother provide food and shelter for the family. Generations of girls like her face a daily struggle to survive and she has no future except in dreams of escape. Brought together by fate, she meets Robert (David Oyelowo) a missionary who coaches soccer and chess to get aimless kids off the street. She has never seen a chess board before but her curiosity draws her to learn the game despite the taunts from boys who shame her for her smelly ghetto clothes. Excelling quickly, she becomes a top player in the local club and her new confidence gives her identity and purpose.

The film follows the predictable narrative arc of poor kids rising to take on the country’s best. With Robert’s mentoring and financial help, Phiona leads a team  to compete at the national chess championships, a personal journey troubled by tensions with her mother. The story is kept sanitised for general Disney audiences by avoiding the kind of high-stake risks facing the teacher of the same storyline in The Fencer (2016). As a Disney production, you might expect to see every cliché that can possibly be squeezed out of this genre. Instead the story is light on melodrama, mainly because of the natural authenticity of Phiona and the other cast. Career actors could not have pulled this off so well.

The metaphor of pawns over-powering queens and the importance of practice, planning, and confidence are a little obvious. The move-by-move close-up shots of chess competition will no doubt delight chess players but may be found tiresomely repetitive by others. But these are minor quibbles given what this film achieves: an original story told honestly on an exotic location without the usual Hollywood baggage. It is quietly inspiring and a minor triumph for Disney.

3-half

Director: Mira Nair

Stars: Madina Nalwanga, David Oyelowo, Lupita Nyong’o

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