Much has been made of the fact Queen of Katwe counts among the first live-action Disney releases set in Africa not to take place on the safari circuit, or to feature a preponderance of Caucasian actors. Another way of approaching it would be as the next evolution of the studio’s true-life sports movies, following the appointment of Whale Rider’s Niki Caro to direct last year’s gridiron vehicle McFarland, USA. Again, a noted female director – here, Mira Nair – has been tasked with assembling gently inspirational montages; the big difference is that the activity lifting everybody up is that most sedentary of pastimes, chess.
Our heroine is Phiona Mutesi (Madina Nalwanga), a young Ugandan raised among the colour and bustle (read: extreme poverty) of the eponymous Kampala slum, where she resides with her single mum Harriet (Lupita Nyong’o) and multiple siblings. The tactical skills that will be her saviour are first borne out playing with salvaged bottletops down at the community rec centre; thereafter, they’re nurtured by resident sports nut Robert Katende (David Oyelowo), who trains Phiona to beat first those prep school kids who’ve had all the advantages she hasn’t, then adversaries on the international stage.
Many of these moves are familiar. Phiona’s progress compares to that of the plucky young protagonists of the US indie Fresh and the recent Kiwi drama The Dark Horse, two other films in which rooks and bishops suggested a path, however zigzagging, away from deprivation. William Wheeler’s script, drawn from journo Tim Crothers’ book, doesn’t underplay the game’s metaphorical applications. “Follow your plans, and you will all find safe spaces,” coach Robert urges his young charges, while pointing out how chess always allows defeated players to reset the pieces and start all over again. (Ah, we go: just like life!)
Still, even at its most on-the-nose and Disneyish, you may just find yourself forgiving Queen of Katwe, for rarely can a studio release have looked so glowingly at its African characters, whether hunched over the board, relaxing in what passes for the family home, or sleeping on the floor in a room full of beds because that’s what these characters know. Nair’s back in the thematic territory of her international breakthrough Salaam Bombay! – that pre-Slumdog Slumdog – and she’s surrounded herself with performers who sense they have an illuminating story on their hands, and keep nudging it away from the obvious.
Nyong’o demonstrates that her 12 Years a Slave turn wasn’t just beginner’s luck with her fierce yet loving display as Harriet; Oyelowo shakes off the mantle of Selma’s Dr. King, his loose and lively Robert more than just a repository of checkerboard wisdom. And Nalwanga is a very shrewd piece of casting: at repose, she has that hackles-up defensiveness oft seen in those who’ve been repeatedly told they won’t amount to anything, and even in tournament mode, she demonstrates a stillness-cum-slowness that makes it all the more surprising and cheering when she gets herself out of trouble or checkmates an opponent.
We’re squarely in the movie centreground here: Queen of Katwe can’t lay claim to being the most politically significant film of the moment (Ava DuVernay’s 13TH surely claims that title), nor even this week (welcome back Ken Loach). Yet elevated by Sean Bobbitt’s vibrant photography and a buoyant Afropop soundtrack, it emerges as what’s likely to be the most enjoyable and stirring example of representation we’ll see this awards season: a film that, like the best Disney fare, connects on some deep and profound level with that part of us that still seeks to improve ourselves – and, who knows, perhaps even the world.
(MovieMail, October 2016)
Queen of Katwe screens on BBC2 today at 1.15pm.