Thursday, October 20, 2016

Queen of Katwe

Another week spent in Frisco, another week of there really just being nothing else to do after work than hit the theater at a nearby mall. Honestly, I have no idea what my co-workers do; there is an awful lot of nothing here. Anyway, unlike last time, when there was a movie or two that didn't make it to Boston, the pickings here are pretty much in line with what is playing back home.

Which is fine; the move and a bunch of special movie events have me behind on the mainstream stuff. Stuff like Queen of Katwe, which deserves a fair bit more recognition than it got, if only because it's a relatively rare release from Disney that is not some branding juggernaut but the company making a quality movie that can be shown to young people without trying to sell them more than a chess set or the original book.

Given that it's a big Disney movie, I'm very impressed that, aside from Lupita Nyong'o and David Oyelowo, it seems to have an almost entirely Ugandan and South African cast. Part of that is because I suspect that is easy to fall into the trap of thinking that "Wakaliwood" is the entirety of what Uganda makes for movies, especially since they just got a signal boost from one of their flicks playing Fantastic Fest, but there's apparently enough talent there to fill this cast out well, and in part because it is often easy to lump all of Africa together, and while one movie likely won't have me recognizing the difference between Ugandan and Nigerian accents, it's a start on seeing the world a little more clearly and specifically. It's also worth mentioning that the one white character of any note, a Canadian girl who is the first opponent to really challenge Phiona, does not actually have any lines. It would be tempting, I think, to try and put someone in the movie that could be shown in the trailer, but beyond that probably not being true to life, it keeps this movie as something about pushing one's self up as opposed to being picked from bad circumstances by an outsider.

Anyway, I liked it, and it's worth sticking through the credits - aside from an unusually delightful montage of where everyone is now (beyond standing next to the actor portraying them), there's a fun ending-credit music video akin to those in Indian movies. I don't know how much Indian style Mira Nair brought to this one - a lot of the colorful visuals and non-Western music choices likely came straight from the African seeing, even if they often felt like Bollywood - but that bit definitely is Indian, and kind of delightful.

Queen of Katwe

* * * * (out of four)
Seen 18 October 2016 in AMC Stonebriar #3 (first-run, DCP)

I suspect that even writers and directors who most want to be known for their complex, non-mainstream works would secretly like to have something like Queen of Katwe on their IMDB page, because it does feel good to make others feel good and to hear that you've given someone hope, even if this sort of victorious-underdog story isn't your usual thing. There are probably hundreds of scripts along those lines floating around Hollywood at any given time, but not many attract the likes of Mira Nair and this film's talented cast and become something quite so terrific.

In 2007, Phiona Mutesi (Madina Nalwanga) is eleven years old, one of four children of widow Nakku Harriet (Lupita Nyong'o) living in the Ugandan slums of Katwe, striving to make ends meet by selling vegetables in the street. Elsewhere in the town, Robert Katende (David Oyelowo) is unable to secure an engineering job and so starts to work part-time coaching kids at soccer for a local miniature - and for the kids who don't play soccer, he starts a chess club. Phiona and her brother Mugabi Brian (Martin Kabanza) initially are drawn in by the porridge Robert serves - and are shunned for being dirty and smelly even by local standards - but Phiona soon starts beating everyone with sophisticated techniques. When Robert learns that she's illiterate and this couldn't have been reading his books, he realizes that he has a prodigy on his hands, and helping her reach her potential will be a much larger task.

Nair and screenwriter William Wheeler (adapting a magazine article and book by Tim Crothers) lay what a young audience can get out of this movie out very clearly during the lessons: A small pawn that makes its way through the gauntlet to the other end of the board, despite having little power, can become a queen, and more generally, success comes in large part by anticipation and planning. That's not the entirety of the story, but even if it were, the filmmakers make it go down easy by making sure that the kids are in large part teaching each other with enthusiasm rather than receiving lectures, the whole premise being to actively respect the kids' intelligence. That extends to not giving a complete primer on the game beyond the bits that will be important symbolically, and trusting that the viewer can process the often rapid-fire exchanges of pieces for their meaning, rather than stopping to explain.

Full review on EFC.

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