If you’ve spent any extended amount of time talking to me you’ll learn two very important things, I love movies and I love Africa. The second one is far more niche than the other and harder to explain. If an Anglophile is someone who is obsessed with Doctor Who, Harry Potter and calls soccer “football” than an Afrophile is obsessed with Fela Kuti, Chinua Achebe and calls soccer “football.” I do feel conflicted using that term because I am indeed white and represent many of the past colonialism problems that plague the continent today. A conversation about this difficult history and the cultural appropriation I try to avoid can be saved for another post (or you can contact me directly). I preface this because it factors in immensely with my feelings toward Queen of Katwe, Disney’s new sports drama about the real-life Kampala chess champion, Phiona Mutesi. I’m not one for either sports films or family fare. It tends to be formulaic in the way of “if you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all.” Thankfully it’s been awhile since Searching For Bobby Fischer and everyone skipped last year’s Pawn Sacrifice so I was willing to see director Mira Nair’s take on the game but the notable selling point is that it’s set and filmed on location in Uganda (and South Africa). Not only that, this movie is unabashedly African which is impressive considering most Disney films feel the need to cater to a caucasian audience. We’ve all seen the white savior narrative where an American goes to (insert country here) and trains some underprivileged youth how to be a proper team (see Cool Runnings, Million Dollar Arm etc). Katwe is caucasian free focusing on the interpersonal relationships in the capital’s slums as one girl rises in fame through her skilled knowledge of the board game.
Katwe in no way reinvents the wheel. If it wasn’t for the setting and strong performances by David Oyelowo as Phiona’s coach, Lupita Nyong’o as her mother and the lively batch of newcomers, it would be a very average movie. There’s the interesting aspect of the fact there are few villains in the story aside from abject poverty. What draws most of the children to Robert Katende’s (Oyelowo) unofficial chess club is the opportunity to prove their worth to the privileged private school educated players. Phiona (Madina Nalwanga) faces the challenges of having to assist her mother with selling maize in the market to support her fellow siblings as little income trickles in for the family. For every step forward she takes in her chess career, her home life takes two steps back with medical bills, eviction, and natural disasters. Katende takes more of the brunt of confronting the arrogant headmasters that don’t want to allow street children into their prestigious tournaments provoking the familiar “snobs vs slobs” trope but a bit more extreme considering the circumstances. The film is a constant push and pull and with every economic problem, Katende must convince Phiona’s mother that the game is worth pursuing. The writing often gets caught up in conventional chess metaphors like fellow team member Gloria (Nikita Waligwa) explaining the move where a pawn transforms to a queen by saying “a small one can come a big one” foreshadowing Phiona’s growth. A bit redundant since we’ve already been informed of her achievements from the film beginning in medias res at a tournament in 2011 before jumping back to ‘07. The other uphill battle is how difficult it is to make chess look interesting. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a great game to play and if you were to watch a Grandmaster in action it’s probably mind blowing but since the film can’t devote a large amount of screen time to entire games (the runtime is already 2+ hours). Instead, there are cuts to players moving a rook here and a knight there. You should be on the edge of your seat but with no context, it’s just wood on a board. Nair finds ways to scoot around this by having exceptionally quirky kids participating in these games so it’s more fun to watch their facial expressions and awkward ticks.
Where the movie slumps with the sport quickly makes up for in atmosphere. If not obvious, I could watch an entire film of someone walking through the streets of Kampala. I adore the bustling roads of the city with vendors selling grilled meats and mango to the cars parked in traffic. There are children dancing for the tourists, tricked out boda bodas weaving through alleys and vibrant colors of the markets. Nair contrasts the impoverished neighborhoods with the bright fabrics worn by inhabitants. Without getting political, the plot becomes about the disadvantages of living in such hardship while getting the taste of the upper crust. Phiona’s success takes her abroad as her first international tournament is held in Sudan (which by just hearing made me wince because when has that country not been in conflict) where she and her teammates are roomed at a swanky hotel with a pool and an endless supply of milkshakes and ketchup. Where she was once content with her existence in Katwe, she now resents her home, desiring the benefits of her winnings. What becomes the moving aspect of the “inspirational” agenda of the film is that it exists as a reminder of what is held in such value in these communities and their disadvantages are far greater than we’ll ever experience. While Phiona’s mother is frustrated as her daughter now lives in a state of depression brought on by her understanding of her own social standing, what she can push for is getting her daughter an education. Katende rewards Phiona’s success with private tutoring from his wife who works for a local school. While primary education is free in most of Africa, many families cannot afford the fees of uniforms and textbooks. Living in America where it’s a given that everyone goes to school for twelve years (and often hates it) it’s eye opening to understand that in places like Uganda, education is a commodity. Education means Phiona will not have to sit in the dirt and sell maize. She can achieve upward mobility and not be caught in the cycle of pennilessness. Understanding the scarcities these children have gives their victories real power.
In my dreams, I’d love to see more studio features about Africa. Even though I’ve never been to the East of the continent, I’ll semi-confidently state it’s an honest portrayal of the country. Yes, there are slums but you are presented the many facets of the social constructs. Katende is part of the emerging middle class with a spacious house for his new family and the first tournament the children participate in is held at a gorgeous, high-ranking college in the country that the youth can’t help but gawk at. The film presents the diversity of a region which most audiences may be unfamiliar with. It’s as much African PR as it is a courageous story about overcoming the unfairness of life and preordained social constructs. It’s a nerd sports movie that someone like me who played Scrabble competitively can get behind. Most likely Queen of Katwe will be the kind of movie shown in schools on slow days right before a holiday when no one wants to do any work but presumably, the rise of a chess champion will be as education as learning math. More relatable than Remember the Titans in my opinion. What I get out of it is that I hope it will embolden people’s interest in Africa even if it’s just listening to the East African traditional/reggae/hip-hop infused soundtrack which is incredible. They throw in some Nigerian artists too and I won’t complain about added Afrobeat flavor. A single soundtrack motivated me to discover the continent ten years ago so let’s see a new crop of Megan’s listening to BBC Africa and being aware of the goings on of these growing nations. Queen of Katwe can make all this happen!
Sorry, this turned into a cry of needing to talk to about Africa with someone…