TIFF Review: Queen of Katwe
Queen of Katwe is a Disney movie set in Uganda starring an all black cast and directed by a woman. Its heroine is a girl. There are no white saviours. It’s about an 11 year-old chess prodigy who overcomes impossible circumstances to achieve greatness in a game usually reserved for the prep school elite. It’s basically every inspirational Disney sports movie you’ve ever seen except it’s set in Uganda, stars only black people, is directed by a woman and the hero isn’t a white guy or Reese Witherspoon.
David Oyelowo was so shocked the studio agreed to make this movie, he said this to the Globe and Mail:
“I kept saying, ‘Did Disney not get the memo as to what this film is and has to be, who it’s about, where it’s set?’”
Director Mira Nair nails those three things: what this film is, who it's about and where it's set. She filmed in actual slums in Uganda, just like where the real chess champion Phiona Mutesi grew up. My father was raised in Ghana. I've spent time there. Uganda and Ghana are not the same but they are similar. Queen of Katwe's depiction of Africa is its most impressive feat. While poverty informs a lot of the story, it does not define it. It doesn’t sugar-coat the difficulty of these surroundings but it doesn’t portray them as a death sentence either. These Africans are hopeful, optimistic and sometimes joyful, in spite of hard circumstances. This is not the Africa we are used to seeing but it's the one I have always known.
As for who it's about, the characters are wonderfully believable, fully realized, vibrant human beings. Lupita Nyong’o, in her first live action on-screen role since 12 Years a Slave, proves she should star in everything with her heartbreaking portrayal of Phiona’s disapproving mother. In a role that could have been the prototypical overbearing mom, Lupita shines bright like a f-cking diamond, bringing depth and vulnerability to the character.
David Oyelowo is solid and charming as Phiona’s coach Robert Katende. At times, newcomer Madina Nalwanga feels a little too mature to be a real life 11 year-old but overall, her performance is a revelation. She’s restrained and relatable. Her checkmate stare down is so badass it’ll make you want to drop the popcorn, get up out your seat and cheer. The supporting cast is mostly made up of locals who had never acted. All of the actors’ accents are all so on point, slipping in and out of Uganda's local language Luganda, I heard an older white man comment on the way out of the screening that he had a hard time understanding what they were saying. That's how you know they did it right.
Queen of Katwe is the first of its kind while at the same time feeling familiar. It's groundbreaking yet formulaic. It's constantly at odds with being the most refreshing and realistic depiction of African life I have ever seen on screen and falling into overdone sports tropes. I was ready to criticize the film’s predictability but it succeeds in so many other ways it doesn't matter that there are a few moments where the chess metaphors about life feel slightly forced.
For a family film set in Africa to feel universally familiar and comforting, that means something so much more than picking apart plucky inspirational one-liners. Don't get me wrong: I'm all about plucky inspirational one-liners. Remember the Titans is one of my favourite films of all time and it's a Disney sports movie. Queen of Katwe is not Remember the Titans. So far, I've seen it compared to Cool Runnings and Slumdog Millionaire (not exactly a sports movie). It's quieter than Runnings and more self-aware than Millionaire. The difference between Katwe and other Disney biopics like Jon Hamm’s Million Dollar Arm or Kevin Costner’s McFarland, USA, other than the obvious, is that it’s exponentially better than those films. Some of the most real and un-Disney like moments come from the subplot involving Phiona’s teenage sister running off with a bad-news older guy and getting pregnant. I’m pretty sure Million Dollar Arm never got real about teen pregnancy.
Queen of Katwe left me perpetually in two emotional states: smiling stupidly or crying uncontrollably. Full disclosure: I cry a lot. It doesn't take a lot to get me misty so take my tears with a grain of salt but I promise I wasn't the only one. I looked around and saw tissues being passed around and heard many stifled sniffs. This film will move you. It will make you care about chess even if it doesn't really explain the game. It's a triumphantly feminist story. It isn’t perfect but Queen of Katwe is exactly what it should be.
Oh, if you really want to f-ck up your mascara, stay for the closing credits.
Michael Tran/ Dominik Magdziak Photography/ Getty Images