Wednesday 20 June 2018

Movie Review: Queen Of Katwe (2016)

A rags-to-prominence story, Queen Of Katwe is standard feel-good fare delivered with honest intentions.

Phiona (Madina Nalwanga) is a young girl living in the Katwe slum of Kampala, Uganda. Her widowed mother Nakku (Lupita Nyong'o) is poor but principled and doing her best to raise Phiona and her many siblings the right way. One day Phiona stumbles into a ramshackle classroom where volunteer football coach Robert Katende (David Oyelowo) teaches chess to disadvantaged kids.

Phiona learns chess from scratch and displays a natural talent for the game. She emerges as the most talented of Katende's students, and he starts enrolling the kids in prestigious school chess tournaments, where they have to fight the stigma of being from the slums. Phiona continues to excel and international opportunities open up for her. But on the home front, Nakku's situation becomes dire when the family is evicted for non-payment of rent, Phiona's brother is involved in a motorcycle crash and her older sister falls in with the wrong crowd.

Produced by Disney, directed by Mira Nair and based on a true story, Queen Of Katwe continues the series of based-on-real-events Disney sports-themed films like 2015's McFarland and 2014's Million Dollar Arm. The premise of underprivileged youth finding their calling through an unlikely sports opportunity is an eternal and exhausted cliche, and Queen Of Katwe is essentially predictable from the opening credits to the closing scroll.

But at least Nair and writer William Wheeler do a few things right. The film is almost entirely set in Africa (there is a brief trip to a tournament in Russia), and Nair colours the movie with the bursting, earthy tones of the continent. There is no white saviour in sight, this being a story of black Africans helping black Africans. And for a Disney film, Queen Of Katwe does not shy away from portraying the squalor of the slums. Although the depictions of Phiona's world are still relatively sterilized, issues of homelessness, prostitution, the lack of basic civic infrastructure (like storm sewers) and rudimentary medical care make it to the screen.

Also interesting is the tension that develops when Phiona is exposed to the potential for a better life through her travels and rubbing shoulders with kids from more fortunate backgrounds. She starts to resent her humble surroundings and a chasm opens between her and Nakku.

David Oyelowo and Lupita Nyong'o deliver earnest performances, Oyelowo more reserved and Nyong'o marginally overdoing the motherly anger bit. The rest of the cast is made up of unknowns and amateurs, newcomer Madina Nalwanga serviceable in the central role.

Queen Of Katwe is impossible not to like, and but as entertainment never deviates from lukewarm.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

1 comment:

  1. I'm in 99% agreement with this review. It's impossible to dislike, but hardly breaks any new ground. It's a nice time-passer for seasoned viewers, and slightly more important as another representation of diversity for younger viewers. The 1% I disagree with is I thought Nyong'o was perfect in her role.


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