Queen of Katwe – 2016

Director Mira Nair
Screenplay William Wheeler based on the book by Tim Crothers
Starring David Oyelowo, Lupita Nyong’o, Madina Nalwanga, Esteri Tebandeke, Peter Odeke, Sheebah Karungi, Taryn Kyaze

There is a magical realism to the films of Mira Nair. So many of the characters feel as though they could walk off the screen into your life and you’d already know them. Fully realized people with gifts and flaws, none exaggerated for effect. This time it is Phiona Mutesi (Nalwanga) her family and friends and an important, but not deific presence in her life, missionary Robert Katende (Oyelowo).

Their paths intertwine one day as Katende is teaching chess at the local mission in Phiona’s hometown of Katwe. She is shunned at first by the other kids, due to her smell. This is handled not in a cruel way. The children don’t hold any sort of irritating grudge. She just smells. She goes home, cleans up as well as she can, then returns. No teasing. Then she begins to learn.

First she learns chess. After finding she has a propensity for it, she is encouraged by Katande to push herself. At this point, her mother Nakku (Nyong’o) intervenes. She is worried for her second daughter, as her oldest daughter has made some bad choices and Harriet needs Phiona safe, and helping around the house. In one of the more moving scenes, Harriet trusts her second child (and one of her sons) to Robert. It’s a bond taken seriously, but absent the schmaltz we’re used to seeing in films of this style. There are actual stakes.

Phiona’s thirst for knowledge of the game leads her to begin reading. This can only enhance her life. Katande encounters some resistance to requests to have Phiona and the rest of her team of chess players compete in tournaments. They are won over, of course, and their country of Uganda ends up becoming a power with her at the lead.

Meanwhile, life goes on in her town of Katwe. The elevated circumstance of her talent becoming a skill is countered with the gravitational pull of everyday life in poor, sometimes dire, but never hopeless circumstance. There is illness, and even disaster looming constantly. The circumstances never are presented disparagingly, thanks to Nair and cinematographer Sean Bobbitt’s ability to capture the vibrant color of the world in which the family lives. The people are not presented as wanting, even though Harriet is a single mother with kids from toddler to mid teens. They are making due, but knowing they live on a thin line dependant on grace.

Nair is naturally able to show these people without the typical vantage of the white visitor’s wide eyed amazement. Her life circumstance of growing up outside of the western world has given her the freedom of avoiding the cliche of white savior. It’s not with any amount of defiance against the idea either. It’s just not part of this story, and shows urge to justify this.

The confidence of a director with Nair’s skill is that the viewer will be amazed at any story told properly. Every part of the world holds its own beauty. Nair doesn’t explain it to the viewer. She lets the lens show us the world and take it in for all of its beauty.

Nair is equally skilled in making unforgettable characters. She allows more than just the names on the credits make decisions of consequence, even if it’s a smile or a kind word. This helps create a universal experience with which all viewers can relate. Phiona is not helpless, waiting to be saved. She faces risks in her, but it is clear she’s happy. She likes her community.

This doesn’t mean she wouldn’t want to improve the circumstance for her family, especially her mother. This also doesn’t mean its an elevator straight to the top. She falters along the way. No journey is worth taking without learning something and overcoming. Once more, there are no enemies here. It’s just there are other players in the world. Many of them as talented as Phiona. Some more driven and skilled.

These obstacles are not over sanitized and saturated with sappy music. She goes back home, keeps studying, overcomes her doubts, and presses forward. The story ends, not with untold riches and wealth for the world. It’s a nice, modest house outside of the town. In this way, the Queen is not an ostentatious title. It’s more representative of the drive for learning one pawn takes, across the same board many of us travel in life. This pawn knows its own potential, but also realizes it takes the sacrifice and support of other pieces to help her reach her goal.

(***** out of *****)

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