This weekend I checked out Queen of Katwe, the latest film from Mira Nair. Nair’s Monsoon Wedding is one of my all-time favorites (if you haven’t seen it, fix your life), and I was curious to see how she would handle a movie set in Uganda and the Disney of it all.
Here’s the thing: this is a Disney/ESPN collaboration on an underdog sports-like tale, which means the narrative hits the expected beats: a plucky, talented protagonist; an inspiring coach; an against-the-odds trajectory. But it’s also a Mira Nair movie, and it includes the hallmarks of her work: a carefully calibrated community study, a refusal to sand off sharp edges, and a masterful wielding of color, music, and setting.
And here’s the other thing: this is a Disney movie set in Africa that contains no lions. No giraffes. No wide-angle views of stampeding wildlife as seen from a biplane. Instead, the frame is mostly filled with people, lots and lots of people. This should not–SHOULD NOT–be revolutionary, but it kind of is. I teach a class on representations of Africa in Western media, and I ask my students to share items they come across. There is no shortage of images out there that would lead you to believe Africa is one big savannah full of exotic animals, with no people to be seen anywhere. Let’s not forget that just last week, British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson referred to Africa as a country. The fact that the average American moviegoer is now familiar with the name of a specific area in Kampala should not be overlooked.
That specific area, Katwe, is by some accounts a “crime-ridden slum.” While the movie doesn’t ignore the realities of life in Katwe–there are multiple scenes of Phiona, the protagonist, gathering water in jerry cans and carrying them back to her family, to name one example that stuck with some of the folks I saw the movie with–it also manages to avoid becoming poverty porn. It does so by focusing on the people living there and on their relationships. Phiona and her brothers have an easy camaraderie, and while her mother and sister are estranged, they clearly care about each other. Bringing them back together, as much as any desire to escape poverty, is what drives Phiona to become a Master.
And, while a more palatable way of referring to a slum might be “economically-depressed area,” the movie’s version of Katwe has its own economic system, one that keeps many of its residents busy and mostly housed and fed. In fact, the daily routine of buying and selling maize is a running theme throughout the film, and a dance scene in the marketplace feels more like the movie’s apex than the various codas that follow.
It would be negligent (and demonstrate the tendencies of “the anthropological unconscious” when it comes to art that represents the continent) to talk about this movie only as it relates to social issues. In addition to the aforementioned use of music and color, it’s worth commenting on the artistry of the direction and acting. While David Oyelowo and Lupita Nyong’o are trained (and wonderful) actors, many of the children in the film are appearing for the first time. That they and Nair are able to marshal such compelling performances is one of the biggest pleasures of the film. The energy of the supporting cast of children balances the grounded, introspective performance turned in by Madina Nalwanga as Phiona. Chess doesn’t lend itself to explosive storytelling the way, for example, football does, but it doesn’t really matter here. You’ll be focused on Phiona’s eyes, and what’s happening behind them.
Have you seen it? Any thoughts to share? Comment away or take the conversation to Twitter!