Friday, October 07, 2016

Queen of Katwe

QUEEN OF KATWE (Mira Nair, 2016)

Katwe, a slum on the fringe of the Ugandan city of Kampala, is not the likeliest place for a chess champion to emerge, yet it is where Phiona Mutesi (Madina Nalwanga) calls home and picks up the game to a startlingly effective degree. In the fact-based QUEEN OF KATWE Phiona comes upon missionary Robert Katende (David Oyelowo) distributing cups of porridge and chess instruction to other children. She and her brother Mugabi Brian (Martin Kabanza) become interested and find learning the game to be a welcome break from trying to make a thousand shillings per day selling maize in the market and among traffic so their family can survive. Since their father and a brother died, their mother, Nakku Harriet (Lupita Nyong’o), has struggled to provide enough for them, their rebellious sister Night (Taryn Kyaze) and younger brother Richard (Ivan Jacobo and Nicolas Levesque).

Driven by his religious faith and experience as an orphan, Robert wishes to improve the lives of the kids he teaches through sports ministry outreach. He sees the possibility in Phiona not only to do well in chess competitions but also to escape the poverty around her. He sacrifices so his students can play against those much more fortunate and relishes their success. He does what he can to give them education. Still, Nakku is suspicious of Robert’s intentions and fears the effects on Phiona of the hope and dreams she may develop from seeing what exists beyond their harsh daily existences.

QUEEN OF KATWE is made in the inspirational sports movie mold with an underdog fighting her way to the top through skill and perseverance. Reduced to its plot, the film would be relatively unremarkable, just one more tale of triumph over adversity, yet director Mira Nair and screenwriter William Wheeler do something wondrous in telling Phiona’s true story. Nair’s strong sense of place captures the difficult living conditions and the moral challenges involved in growing up in extreme poverty without wallowing in miserabilism for its own sake. Nair doesn’t deny that the children can be happy as they work and play. There’s no question that Phiona’s family and those they live among have hard lives, but the film doesn’t condescend to them. As a family film stamped with the Walt Disney brand, some of the more unpleasant implications in the compromises to meet needs are hinted at, yet it’s not a matter of skirting the issues than being age-appropriate.

QUEEN OF KATWE is not explicitly a faith-based film, a term usually intended for the type of blandly reassuring and proselytizing movie meant to turn out church groups in droves, but it is deeply informed by the Christianity of its main characters. Religious belief is integrated into these protagonists through their actions rather than through statements or Scriptural quotations. While QUEEN OF KATWE looks admiringly at them, the film notices the burden associated with living by such principles. Nakku refuses to forsake what she holds dear in exchange for minimal necessities. Robert must decide between his commitment to the work of a servant of God and a career that will pay him more to care for his wife and child. The film treats their Christian faith as an ideology that guides their lives rather than a slogan.

Best known for playing Martin Luther King Jr. in SELMA, Oyelowo is just as charismatic in QUEEN OF KATWE. He exudes a softer presence here, one that gains strength through quiet insistence than the rousing speech. When he rallies the kids who feel that they don’t belong among their richer peers and tries to convince Nakku of Phiona’s potential, Oyelowo persuades because he speaks from a place of empathy. Nyong’o does affecting work through how Nakku watches her children. Nalwanga anchors the film with the determination she brings to Phiona. In observing the fundamental decency of these people, QUEEN OF KATWE identifies that being a champion may come with a medal or a trophy, but it doesn’t need to.

Grade: B+

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