Disney’s Queen of Katwe changes the game

Madina Nalwanga plays chess champion Phiona Mutesi in Queen of Katwe, an uplifting true story that breaks with Disney convention. Imagae courtesy of Disney Madina Nalwanga plays chess champion Phiona Mutesi in Queen of Katwe, an uplifting true story that breaks with Disney convention. Imagae courtesy of Disney

On the surface, Disney’s Queen of Katwe is a feel-good, fact-based movie whose familiarity is part of its charm. Based on the life of Ugandan chess prodigy Phiona Mutesi, the film, directed by Mira Nair (Monsoon Wedding, Mississippi Masala), confidently navigates the Disney underdog formula, yet finds personal and occasionally political depth in its subject’s story. The movie’s impressive ensemble is made up of both world-famous talent (David Oyelowo, Lupita Nyong’o) and complete newcomers (led by Madina Nalwanga as Phiona). This year has been seriously lacking in upbeat films, and Queen of Katwe may be just the thing we need.

Queen of Katwe
PG, 124 minutes
Violet Crown Cinema and Regal Stonefield 14 and IMAX

Beneath the surface, Nair has led what might be a quiet revolution against Hollywood convention despite Queen of Katwe’s conventional structure: The film takes place almost entirely in Uganda from the perspective of Ugandans. This might seem unremarkable when stated so plainly, but consider most Western films set in Africa and the tropes they lean on—war, famine, atrocity, always seen through the eyes of some white savior, perhaps a journalist or NGO worker. Those sorts of films may be rooted in good intentions, but they ultimately essentialize entire countries to fit the particular sympathies of Western liberal guilt, and reduce the totality of their existence to their suffering.

Queen of Katwe is told completely from the point of view of its protagonists—nearly every speaking role is a black actor—and though it does not whitewash the social problems of its setting, the film never treats its characters as objects of pity but as individuals attempting to do the best they can with what they have.

Based on the book by sports reporter Tim Crothers, Queen of Katwe follows Phiona as she develops her gift for chess, a talent discovered by Robert Katende (Oyelowo), whose ministry helps disenfranchised youth by feeding them and teaching them chess. Phiona and her siblings are unable to attend school because they have to work to make rent following the death of Phiona’s father. Her widowed mother, Nakku (Nyong’o), is fiercely protective of her children, aware of the dangers and temptations that await them (including some surprisingly blunt references to war and sex work for a Disney film). And while she understands that her daughter is special, she is wary of the uncertainty that comes from so much pressure being put on a young teenager.

Phiona’s gift is impressive, but Katende gradually comes to realize that she has the potential to be an international contender, yet growing up illiterate and poor in the village of Katwe puts her at an unfair disadvantage. In another skewering of convention, Queen of Katwe is a thoughtful coming-of-age tale that focuses not on dating but on coming to terms with one’s own talent and ambition; after her first tournament victory at an elite school in Uganda, she’s convinced the wealthy city boy allowed her to win. As her confidence grows, her dissatisfaction with her surroundings causes conflict between Phiona and her mother, which balloons into overconfidence before an emotional loss on the international stage.

The child actors are all watchable and occasionally hilarious, and their chemistry with Oyelowo and Nyong’o will make you forgive the surprisingly long runtime of 124 minutes. In the most superficial ways, Queen of Katwe is nothing new, but within it is the potential to forever alter the film industry as we know it.


Playing this week  

Regal Stonefield 14 and IMAX
The Shops at Stonefield, 244-3213
Blair Witch, Bridget Jones’s
Baby, Don’t Breathe, The Magnificent Seven, Snowden, Storks, Suicide Squad, Sully, When the Bough Breaks, The Wild Life

Violet Crown Cinema
200 W. Main St., Downtown Mall, 529-3000
The Beatles: Eight Days a Week-The Touring Years, Bridget Jones’s Baby, Complete Unknown, Hell or High Water, The Hollars, Hunt for the Wilderpeople, The Magnificent Seven, Snowden, Storks, Sully

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