Just as old dogs can learn new tricks, so Disney has proved, unequivocally, that they can venture from a decades-old tried and tested trope and make authentic cinema with the much-anticipated Queen of Katwe.
The 93-year-old filmmaking behemoth has trademarked candy-coated re-packaging of other nation’s oral and traditional histories since 1923. We KNOW better – the stories of the Brothers Grimm, Lewis Carroll, Hans Christian Andersen, yet we have all eaten up the Disney versions, making them gazillions of dollars. For me, a particularly low point was The Little Mermaid. The original ending was not a happy one, people!
2012 was a big year of change for the company. They began principal photography on the first discernible phased departure under the main Disney banner with the live feature Saving Mr. Banks (2013); they acquired LucasFilm, which was to give the company arguably its first successful complete departure with Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015). Now, praise be, they have done so again with Queen of Katwe! Then, based on The Queen of Katwe: One Girl’s Triumphant Path to Becoming a Chess Champion by Tim Crothers (2012), Walt Disney Pictures optioned the rights and Tendo Nagenda, a senior creative executive of Ugandan descent, developed the project into production. It recently premiered at the 2016 Toronto International Film Festival and it is slated as one of the major galas of this year’s BFI London Film Festival.
In 2007, 11-year-old Phiona Mutesi (Madina Nalwanga) lives in the Ugandan slum of Katwe with her widowed mother Nakku Harriet (Lupita Nyong’o), older sister Night (Taryn “Kay” Kyaze), her younger brother Mugabi Brian (Martin Kabanza) and toddler Richard (Ivan Jacobo). They sleep head to tail in their hovel; are malnourished, unwashed and barely make enough money selling maize on the streets to pay the extortionate rent. Brian and his friend Ivan (Ronald Ssemaganda) watch the football games at the local Sports Outreach Institute but decline when the Coach, Robert Katende (David Oyelowo), invites them to play. He is an unemployed engineer treading water in the outreach programme until his endless job applications yield the one that will set him and family (wife Sara [Esther Tebandeke] and baby daughter) up in a more comfortable life. Knowing what can become of bright but idle poverty-stricken young boys, and knowing that participating in the outreach programme means a free daily meal of porridge, he invites them to join his chess club instead.
Brian begins disappearing on his sister when he should be helping to sell maize and salt for their mother, and won’t tell her where he goes. Fearful for his safety, Phiona follows him one day and is amazed by the food and the completely alien activity she witnesses. Fending off taunts from some of the other children, she is fascinated as Katende invites her in, gives her porridge and asks one of the better players, Gloria (Nikita Waligwa), to teach her the basic rules. Phiona shows not only a fighting spirit and a real determination, she demonstrates a remarkable head for strategic thinking, soon developing the skill to see 8 moves ahead. Katende recognises that he has a real chess prodigy on his hands and is inspired to try to develop and challenge her.
It doesn’t matter that we know how the story ends, or that Phiona is now just 20 years old because the creative team resolved to tell a modern African story, at an African pace, inviting the audience to be steeped in African culture, to be given an insight into the African mind. This means that they have managed to avoid making an American film set in Africa, starring Africans, speaking American with American attitudes. This achievement must be attributed to Disney’s Nagenda, who invited (South) Indian-American director Mira Nair (Mississippi Masala, 1991, Monsoon Wedding, 2001) onto the project. She keeps a home in Uganda after spending time there researching and shooting Mississippi Masala on location in Kampala, meeting her second husband, and then founding the Maisha Film Labs – a Uganda-based film training initiative which aims to give aspiring filmmakers the tools and knowledge to tell their own stories through film. Nair then brought on board white Philadelphian screenwriter William Wheeler (Ray Donovan, 2015) to come to interview the main, real-life protagonists in Kampala as basis for a screenplay. Disney did have concerns about the story being entirely set in Africa but was reassured by the short high-concept film Nair produced for them early on.
What also works is the entirely African cast, and the mixture of English and subtitled Ugandlish and Swahili used throughout. Nyong’o and Oyewolo produce great work here. Nyong’o, in her second poverty-stricken role, again captures her character’s complex indomitability to an authentic and appealing degree, and is still stunning whilst doing it. As the educated Katende is a more straightforward character to capture, Oyelowo does so with the same conviction he has shown as Martin Luther King Jr (Selma, 2014) and Seretse Khama (A United Kingdom, 2016), but he adds a credible comedic streak, inspired by a tenderness for his country’s children.
The rest of the cast, mostly less experienced actors including Ntare Mwine as Tendo, Maurice Kirya as Theo Edgar Kanyike as Joseph, will simply grab and massage your empathy throughout.
But, it is the captivating newcomer Madina Nalwanga who must take most of the credit. The filmmakers avoided imbuing Phiona with that mostly irritating precocity usually so prevalent in gifted ‘Disney children’. Instead, she starts off as a quiet pre-teen with a healthy curiosity and only a hint of the determination she will later rely on. There is a serenity about her, a joyful earthiness and a rock-bottom self-esteem which, after winning her first significant tournament, has her asking, “Did he let me win…? How could I have won him?” If you don’t bite your lip to stop you from crying out in heartbreak, you are not human.
Queen of Katwe does not romanticise Phiona’s existence. Fully represented is the impossible hardship of a life in poverty – how easily it still dogs a mother of 4 whose husband suddenly dies; how easily a child’s life is lost; how quickly those with a little more exploit the vulnerable; how there are no short-cuts out of the modern African slum; how even the delicate balance of nature can mean life or death; and how an African woman with a quiet dignity and a high moral code can prepare her children to achieve a greatness beyond imagining… without a white helping hand anywhere to be seen.
The exploitation is an important, but nuanced point, as it throws into bold relief the passion and true altruism of the local carers and educators who choose to ‘get involved’ with their whole heart. To a degree, they pulled their punches as far as sexual politics (and certainly violence), were downplayed. However, it could simply be that Phiona was at least fortunate not to have been exposed to that kind of misfortune.
What this film absolutely shows with quite beautiful understatement is the range of Africans in Africa, the contrasts in class and the social hierarchies, in two particular scenes. In Katende’s flashback, we see him – an academically gifted student working a job to pay his way through university and challenging the university elite to their misplaced sense of entitlement, later mirrored by his slum kids in Budu’s King’s College… Interestingly, with the latter, you could hear the mental and emotional connections click in the minds of the mainly white industry and press audience. Recognition dawned with such odd-one-out in Ivy League America films like Animal House (1978), Revenge of The Nerds (1984), Dead Poets Society (1989), Scent of A Woman (1991), Rudy (1993), Good Will Hunting (1997), Legally Blonde (2001) and some with actual African American stars – Trading Places (1983), School Daze (1988) and Higher Learning (1985).
The other incredibly important aspect of any theatrical release is the music, and this movie is no exception. Released on Walt Disney Records on September 23rd, the original motion picture soundtrack will be made available as a 20-track album featuring 5 excerpts from Alex Heffes’ score plus 12 fantastic tunes by such various artists as Nigerian singer-songwriter MC Galaxy, Nigerian-American singer Davido, the Afrigo Band and Moses Matovu (the 41-year-old, and possibly longest-lasting, band in Uganda). The most important and fun is the #1 Spice by Ugandan Hip Hop duo HAB and Young Cardamom, a ‘fighting song’ to the youngsters in the film. A deluxe score will also be released which includes an additional 17 tracks scored by Heffes.
So, TBB endorses this quietly beautiful and subtle film about a child chess prodigy who becomes a Woman Candidate Chess Master.
Queen of Katwe (124 minutes) screens at the BFI LFF on October 9th, 10th and 12th and goes on general release in the UK on October 21st, 2016.