Considering the frequency and calibre of titles intended for mainstream audiences by the Big Cheese, every now and then they surprise us with a low budget gem (well - for Disney's standards); directed by one of my favourite independent filmmakers no less.
Mira Nair helms Queen of Katwe - a biographical drama set in an underdeveloped neighbourhood within Uganda's capital city. The premise focuses on Phiona Mutesi (played by Madina Nalwanga) - a 10 year old girl who joins a missionary programme in order to learn chess. Coach Robert Katende (David Oyelowo) recognises her potential and offers guidance through a series of competitions, which take place over several years.
Queen of Katwe is based on a true story adapted from an ESPN article (and later a book) by Tim Crothers. From my understanding, much of the film sticks to true facts thanks to extensive research and interviews by screenwriter William Wheeler. Mira Nair is no stranger to local stories set in poverty stricken areas and has, in the past, been unapologetic in depicting harsh realities in third world communities. Similarly in this film, the characters live in immensely difficult circumstances, where the majority of us would not last more than one night. Nair provides an underlying commentary on social issues, attitudes against women and discrimination of the poor. However, she does contrast with examples of incredible community support and overwhelming humility of the leading children. Mira Nair has approached Queen of Katwe with a sense of balance in this instance, showcasing both sides of Uganda's capital city.
I would like to also emphasise that the filmmakers did a fantastic job in turning chess into a spectator sport for the film. Certain tournaments genuinely had my heart racing and you do not need to know how to play in order to feel the tension within the scenes. A lot of the communication is achieved using facial expression between the players and crowd; subtle changes in glances or body language allow the audience to follow exactly how the games are unfolding.
The film debuts a group of young Ugandan first-time actors, who are all naturals. The chemistry, tantrums and mischief between the children were adorable to watch.
The main two professional actors however are Lupita Nyong'o (of 12 Years a Slave fame) and David Oyelowo. Nyong'o delivers a remarkably sincere and heartfelt performance as a protective and strong-willed mother to Phiona and her siblings. It is evident that raising a child in Katwe is a challenge; imagine raising three as a single parent. There are two David Oyelowo projects doing their UK theatrical runs; the other is A United Kingdom. Incidentally, both are set in Africa but in completely separate countries, and hence different accents, attitudes and mannerisms. He is absolutely sensational in this in terms of his infectious energy and portraying absolute selflessness.
In some ways, this is the least Disney-like film I've ever seen but in other ways, Queen of Katwe is quintessentially Disney. With all of the recent criticism regarding lack of diversity in Hollywood, one has to admire the studio in breaking the mould in financing an African project and utilising local talent. Not only that, they provided filmmakers flexibility in tackling taboo subjects and themes, which are not common in standard Disney titles. Having said that, the overall structure does follow a by-the-book approach; everyone loves a good underdog story and in this case, the chess element is a metaphor for discipline and life challenges. Madina Nalwanga is remarkably competent in the lead role, managing to ride the frequent highs and lows of Phiona's childhood struggles and coping with fame. However, the overall execution does come across as slightly textbook and a touch safe in comparison with earlier Mira Nair efforts.
Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed Queen of Katwe and was surprised at the bold, if a little contrived, layout of the film. I could not help but be moved by certain chapters and given the subject matter, is one of the rare films that can genuinely be enjoyed by the entire family. Mrs Garioch awarded Queen of Katwe a 7/10 but I reckon it deserves at least an 8. My biggest concern is how few people will see this and whether it will see much of a return against its $15 million budget. Only one cinema (out of four) in my hometown was screening this and even that was limited to a single early afternoon showing. I just hope one or two of you guys will be able to catch this at some point.