Director: Mira Nair
Stars: Lupita Nyong’o, David Oyelowo, Madina Nalwanga
Few corporations can be viewed globally as avatars for Western society like Disney, yet when taking on the lead role in their latest live action film Queen Of Katwe, David Oyelowo was moved to call the project ‘subversive’ – hardly an adjective regularly associated with the Mouse Ears. Yet Oyelowo has a point. Queen of Katwe appears to be your run-of-the-mill inspirational Disney sports movie brimming with young happy heroes, yet the film features an all-black cast, the vast majority of whom are natives of Uganda, the African country in which this true story took place. What’s more this isn’t being sold as a mid-tier straight-to-streaming title, but is instead afforded a widespread cinematic release.
In 2016 this ought not be a subversive thing. But it is.
Credit therefore to Disney for pushing forward with the more progressive mandate laid down earlier this year in their surprisingly forward-thinking animated feature Zootopia / Zootropolis. That film eschewed the Disney princess concept entirely and embraced the enhancing possibilities of multiculturalism. Queen Of Katwe goes one further by exhibiting a non-Western culture exclusively. In the process they’ve managed to snare two of the best non-white actors working today (Lupita Nyong’o and the aforementioned Oyelowo). The presence of these two bolsters the film no end, while local casting ensures the remaining acting talent deliver authenticity.
Directed with safety by Mira Nair (Monsoon Wedding, The Reluctant Fundamentalist), Queen Of Katwe delves into the slum which gives the film its name to focus on the life of young Phiona Mutesi (Madina Nalwanga), who spends her time peddling maize from a bowl in service of her family until she discovers a community outreach program which teaches chess. Ministered by a man named Robert Katende (Oyelowo), this young chess group – nicknamed the Pioneers – channels Phiona’s natural aptitude for problem solving into the game. When her talents become evident, Katende offers Phiona the chance to take her skills to the next level and compete in national tournaments.
Nyong’o plays Phiona’s mother Nakku, a proud and determined single mother, struggling to keep any semblance of a roof over her children’s heads. Phiona’s dalliances with chess are a frustration to Nakku, not least as she is already pining silently for the loss of her eldest daughter Night (Taryn Kyaze) who has been lost to an element of the Katwe slum that Nair’s film only vaguely alludes to thanks to the film’s strict PG mandate.
It’s great to have Nyong’o front and centre again after seeing her talents so conspicuously masked in a run of motion-capture or voice-only roles that suggested Hollywood was deliberately keeping her from view. They’d be fool to as she brings spark and clout to Queen Of Katwe just as Oyelowo brings soft-spoken gravitas. The two of them alone warrant the price of a cinema ticket. Fortunately the cast of largely inexperienced young actors surrounding them are all up to the task and keep the film’s spirits high even as setbacks and minor tragedies are catalogued.
So while the casting and geography of Queen Of Katwe mark it out as something of a landmark entry in Disney’s long history, it’s worth noting that the style, tone and presentation are firmly those the company are familiar with. You could conceivably read the chess tournaments and Phiona’s social predicament as a metaphor for the greater economic troubles facing Uganda as a country, yet Nair’s film protectively ring-fences the story from wider political statements. That’s hardly surprising, and it would be churlish to expect such seismic change in modus operandi from Disney given the groundwork already underway here. Still, it means that Queen Of Katwe feels radical in terms of production but not so much in execution.
The story beats you expect are all here. And, what’s more, they are delivered with the same heavy-handed tilts into melodrama and sentimentalism that Disney have been offering us for decades. Tonally speaking, there’s little separating this film from similar recent Disney fare like Million Dollar Arm. It’s as though the account men are standing just off-screen keeping Nair in check. Yet Nair does occasionally push back against this. See those allusions to the more dangerous nightlife lurking in store for Phiona’s sister Night. These activities are not catalogued, but the suggestion is there. See also some of the film’s more heart-rending scenes in which Nakku’s frustration at their social circumstances are brought to the fore. The hairs on the back of the neck prickle at the greater sense of anger and injustice crackling in the corners of the frames that Disney are busy softening.
Nevertheless, the movie presented is an enjoyable one, if slightly less punchy than it perhaps could have been. With the ambitions of its content restricted to the chess tournaments and the family tribulations, a running time that just clips two hours occasionally feels a little languid, but not detrimentally so. Certainly not whenever Oyelowo, Nyong’o and Nalwanga are on screen together in any combination. In spite of sticking firmly within the lines when it comes to genre content (and in spite of an overly earnest Alicia Keys original ballad pummeling audiences out of their seats when the credits come), Queen Of Katwe succeeds in fulfilling Oyelowo’s claim. It is subversive. It does ask white Western audiences to show up for, pay attention to and respect an all-black cast, and it does deliver a film worthy of said attention and respect. Change always comes in increments. Queen Of Katwe is a significant step for Disney, even if it could be bolder.