Directed by Mira Nair Written by William Wheeler Starring Madina Nalwanga, Lupita Nyong'o & David Oyelowo Film Review by Dean Pettipher
The last time that one might recall observing Uganda propped up upon the world stage, to be viewed exclusively through the ostensibly story-driven but ultimately financially-motivated lenses of the Hollywood movie business, will most likely be Kevin Macdonald’s Oscar-winning drama entitled The Last King of Scotland (2006). For James Bond enthusiasts, memory may also drift towards the African nation’s equally brutal and depressing depiction, albeit this particular presentation was much briefer, in the BAFTA-wining 007 adventure, Casino Royale (2006). Add other incredible movies to the mix, such as Hotel Rwanda (2004), Tsotsi (2005), Blood Diamond (2006) and Zulu (also entitled City of Violence) (2013), which all take on the rarely-performed task of telling stories set within the African continent and while doing so choose to shed light predominantly on the chaos and despair that many African nations are perceived to be notorious for, at least according to the collective psyche of the world, then it seems hardly surprising that the Walt Disney Company were fairly reluctant to give the green light to financing its first ever live-action film to be set and shot, basically in its entirety, in Africa. In fact, the last and perhaps the only time that one might remember watching a truly feel-good picture set in that part of the world might be Africa United (2010), which, unfortunately, did not receive much media attention, in spite of being set against the backdrop and being released in the wake of the first FIFA World Cup to be held on the African continent. Thus, the family feature that was fundamentally about dreams coming true against the odds did not last very long in the mainstream cinema chains. With such knowledge in mind, could such a movie ever be truly capable of capturing that Disney magic, while also managing to achieve both critical and box office success? Queen of Katwe (2016) answers those queries with a well-deserved flamboyant and joyous ‘Yes.’ The magic has well and truly been re-captured, with all of its infectious splendour that remains as vital as ever for keeping dreams alive both on and beyond the silver screen, the best Disney picture of the year thus far. In truth, there was no need to ‘capture’ that magic at all, for director Mira Nair and the team have illustrated wonderfully that the magic was always there, even in Africa.
William Wheeler has scribed an overwhelmingly poignant script based on two primary sources written by the same author, Tim Crothers. The first is an ESPN article and the latter is a book, about the same subject matter, entitled, The Queen of Katwe: A Story of Life, Chess, and One Extraordinary Girl's Dream of Becoming a Grandmaster (2012). Combining such creative aids with interviews between Wheeler and the real-life sports heroes, such as Phiona Mutesi, upon whom the film is based, has resulted in a script that gracefully dances from funny to sad and back again in consistently engaging circles, from start to finish, in a manner that Disney remains special for. Wheeler frequently employs chess as a metaphor for life in an always intriguing and relatable fashion. Moreover, Wheeler has given Nair and her cast the opportunity to allow each character’s distinct personality to shine, which is especially impressive in the scenes featuring the protagonist and her team of young chess players working their way up in the chess tournament universe. All loose ends are tied up handsomely and what follows the end of the story is a beautiful, never-before-seen take on the closing sequence that reminds audiences of the adapted screenplay’s real-life inspiration.
￼ Wheeler’s script is brought to its highest possible state of sparkling life through Nair’s incredible direction. With her fellow artists, she confidently takes hold of every camera shot and its various accompaniments, so that all of the humour, all of the sadness, or even all of the sheer poignancy of each moment, is ceaselessly pitched to perfection. The result is a story that generates bounteous amounts of laughs, elongated thrills, sudden shocks and at least compelling urges to shed tears in the wake of the numerous struggles that many associate only with Africa, which Nair makes no effort to hide. Instead, Nair clearly points them out as just some of the countless difficulties, both within and without Phiona Mutesi’s home in the slum in Katwe. Nair also manages to present the game of chess in such a way that is far from tedious but rather a thrilling affair of mind against mind, marked often by tremendous levels of tension and suspense, even if only out of hope for the protagonist on the part of her audiences both on and beyond the silver screen. Such a display feels reminiscent of how enigma code-cracking during World War II was successfully presented as a heart-squeezing hedge-maze of thrills in The Imitation Game (2014). Thus, the film achieves a striking sincerity in its appeal to all dreamers to never, ever give up, no matter how frustrating and ostensibly life-determining their personal circumstances appear to be. While that message by now appears audaciously exhausted by Disney, ultimately, it is a message that will never, ever grow old.
Watch the movie trailer for Queen of Katwe above.
The performances of the leading actors and the child stars especially are phenomenal. David Oyelowo portrays the perfect husband, teacher and pastoral carer with so much bubbling energy and charm that one becomes utterly flabbergasted when requested to ascertain which of Oyelowo’s two performances showcased at the 2016 London Film Festival was the best. This supporting role as Phiona Mutesi’s mentor, Robert Katende, and his starring role as Seretse Khama in Amma Asante’s A United Kingdom (2016) are both nothing short of superb. Lupita Nyong'o may not be required in this movie to push herself here quite as far as she did for 12 Years a Slave (2013) but her performance as Phiona Mutesi’s mother is nevertheless as full of emotional charge as is necessary for a mother who evidently, above all things, loves her children with all of her heart and so much more. Madina Nalwanga, a newcomer Ugandan actress, delivers an impressive debut movie performance as the heroine battling against the odds to do what she loves. Nalwanga expertly showcases her character’s flaws as clearly as she does her more attractive qualities, in such a way that simply demands that audiences root for by the end of her first few scenes. Finally, honourable mentions in relation to the acting must be made for the other emerging young talents playing fellow chess enthusiasts whom Phiona Mutesi meets early on in her chess player endeavours. These mentions include, but are certainly not limited to, Ronald Ssemaganda, Nikita Waligwa, Ethan Nazario Lubega and Edgar Kanyike. Together, they have formed once of the most adorable young ensembles ever seen in a Disney movie.
￼ The well-paced action is carried along by the original score of Alex Heffes, who, incidentally, also composed the music for the aforementioned picture, The Last King of Scotland. The sweet orchestral melodies often humbly give way to upbeat songs from a host of artists that include Young Cardamon & HAB, MC Galaxy, A Pass, Jose Chameleone and Alicia Keyes. The result is a movie soundtrack that compels one to get up and dance, if only such a thing was socially acceptable in a movie theatre. Alas, one might happily settle for shaking heads or tapping feet instead.
Queen of Katwe will not win over those who are averse to what they perceive to be Disney’s shamelessly sugar-drenched, overly sweet-scented style of storytelling. However, even those audiences will conceded that the movie is an excellent example of how diversity in the film industry can work miracles, especially when done this well. Hopefully its success will extend to a financially lucrative aftermath following its release in cinemas. If that does not turn out to be the reality, then such a disappointment will never take away the already apparent reality that Queen of Katwe turned out to be a brilliant family adventure about the pursuit of dreams from humble beginnings. Nobody danced at the London Film Festival (LFF) Press Screening, but they definitely clapped. Chances are that they clapped for Uganda, for Africa, for dreamers living on the African continent and around the world, as well as for all of their friends and families who proudly support them until the end. At the very least, the frisson of excitement that carried LFF Press Delegates out of the early morning screening and throughout the rest of the day had one certain origin: an undeniably marvellous Disney movie that was undoubtedly worthy of that uniquely optimistic Disney magic.
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