So finally, I got to watch Mira Naira’s much-anticipated film “Queen of Katwe”.
Because it is based on Tim Crothers’ book “The Queen of Katwe: One Girl’s Triumphant Path to Becoming a Chess Champion”, for many such films are about how truthful they remain to the book.
For me, once I have read the book, I find it boring when a filmmaker stays faithful to it, so I always look for the new nuance, the creative licences, and the risks a director takes because that is what reveals their guts.
Straight out of the gate, a friend said, it was the first time she had watched a big Hollywood film – especially one set in a slum as Queen of Katwe is – “without a white saviour”.
Not only does it go against the dominant narrative where it’s the international charities that fight poverty in the desperate places in Africa, but it’s a big risk with the commercial success of the film in the Western markets, though Lupita Nyong’o and David Oyelowo are probably meaty enough in their own right to deliver many eyeballs.
So we tick that box. Lots of guts.
The next test was one of authenticity. How much would the film try to “internationalise”, and how much would it be truly Ugandan and force the rest of the world to come to terms with that. Even I who is philosophically prepared to deal with “Ugandan English”, was surprised how much of it made its way into the film.
Usually, the fear that it might come across as “too local” has led many filmmakers to scrub out the “native fingerprints”.
Lupita Nyong’o and David Oyelowo totally ace the Ugandan accents and Ugandan mannerisms.
So we tick that box too. No scrubbing.
Third, and most difficult I thought, was how to avoid it being either a pity story or another stereotypical tale of African squalor.
The poverty, and dreariness were all there, yet somehow they didn’t get in the way.
“Queen of Katwe” is a story of 10-year-old Phiona (Madina Nalwanga) and her family. Her world changes one day when she meets Robert Katende (David Oyelowo), a missionary who teaches children how to play chess. Phiona becomes taken by the game and soon becomes a top player under Katende’s tutelage. Her success in local competitions and tournaments opens the door to a bright future and an escape for her family from a life of poverty.
But would it be a linear story, or take some surprising turns? Lupita Nyong’o (Harriet Nakku) is a strong woman, yet she battles with the moral dilemma presented to her by her older daughter Night, who brings money home that she got from a man she slept with.
She refuses it from her, but like the proverbial pragmatic Catholic bishop, accepts it when it is Phiona who passes it to her. Genius!
And while Phiona is a chess prodigy, luck also plays a large part in her fortunes. Coach Katende was just one such person in one slum, Katwe, married to the kind of big-hearted wife not everyone is married to.
In the process, Mira works in a subtle caveat on the “Phiona model” – it’s not the way in which the thousands of children in the slums and other desperate places will get of poverty. Where does the film come short? To me, it is in a part that perhaps would not have improved it to most viewers.
It could have used a greater sense of history. The triumph of Phiona, was the 100th anniversary of the birth of Katwe as an important symbol of modern Uganda’s political life.
Katwe was the birthplace of insurgent ideas. On the margins of the colonial state, it is in Katwe that Ugandan nationalism was born.