Queen Of Katwe, 2016.
Directed by Mira Nair.
Starring David Oyelowo, Lupita Nyong’o, Madina Nalwanga, Taryn Kyaze and Ethan Nazario Lubega.
Phiona (Madina Nalwanga) lives with her mother, brothers and sister in the impoverished township of Katwe in Uganda, selling vegetables to earn money instead of going to school. But she’s intrigued by a chess club run by a missionary (David Oyelowo), eventually becomes involved and her talent for the game soon becomes obvious. Under his guidance, her success takes her places she could never have imagined. She, her life and that of her family, are all changed for ever – and for the better.
It may have gone down in movie history in The Seventh Seal (1957) and The Thomas Crown Affair (1968), but chess is a hard sell at the cinema. Its complexities don’t exactly make it the most visual of games and, if you’re not au fait with the rules, it can seem remarkably lacking in action. For most audiences, a bored game. And for a family one, an even harder proposition, yet that’s exactly what Disney has offers up in Queen Of Katwe, its London Film Festival offering for 2016 and first since Saving Mr Banks three years ago.
Director Mira Nair has tackled the issue head-on and found a simple but effective solution. Her focus is on the competitors and the spectators, showing us their reactions, from the euphoria of winning to the bitter disappointment of defeat or resignation. And, as the players are all children – Phiona is just 10 at the start of the film – they’re an emotional lot. Losing is hard and even harder for the boys when they lose to a girl. Added to the mix is one especially striking aerial shot, which looks down on all the competitors at Phiona’s first big competition. All the individual tables are there, the competitors , the black and white boards and the chessmen. Simple, strong and one that sticks in the mind.
But Disney has even more on its mind than chess. After doing diversity in the animated Zootropolis, it’s now tackling the same subject in a live action film, and breaking new ground at the same time. Queen Of Katwe marks the first time it’s ever made a film with an all-black cast. But that, sadly, is about as ground breaking as it gets, because Nair is a safe pair of hands as a director and those familiar Disney values are as entrenched as ever – family, hard work, determination, doing the right thing. Even a mum, but no apple pie. So, while it’s something of a high profile departure, it’s still conventional, traditional and holds little in the way of surprises as far as the outcome is concerned. It does itself no favours in advocating chess as a life plan: given that the game is one of subtlety and strategy, it’s a heavy handed approach and not without its flaws.
The film is also dominated by the women characters. Phiona herself, with newcomer Madina Nalwanga giving us a central character who grows in confidence and stature before our eyes. Away from her natural environment of home and selling vegetables, she’s quiet, shy and lacking in confidence. But chess lights a spark inside her, one that leads her to learn to read and write, as well as master the game. Her mother, Harriet (Lupita Nyong’o), is determined that her children will survive and have rules to live by, but she’s angry at how her life has turned out, how hard it is and often appears aggressive and sceptical of Phiona improving herself.
While the film is most definitely aimed at family audiences – its UK release date coincides with half term – a running time of just a smidge under two hours is a big ask for children. And even bigger when coupled with a board game that, by definition, has very little in the way of physical action. Yet, despite being formulaic and conventional, it also still manages to be uplifting and inspirational and there’s an undeniable emotional pull. One that managed to keep journalists in their seats as the credits started. Onto the screen came one of the main actors, only to be joined by the actual person they played on screen and a caption on what they went on to do with their lives. This was repeated for all the major characters and nobody moved out of their seats. There was a tangible sense of respect for people who’d had it far from easy and somehow managed to rise above it through their own efforts and talent. The African dream, perhaps.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★