Wednesday, November 02, 2016

Queen of Katwe: escaping the orbit of underachievement … through chess

Queen of Katwe begins in 2007 in the Katwe region of Kampala, the capital of Uganda. Phiona (played by Madina Nalwanga) lives in a rented corrugated iron hut and along with her brother she sells maize on the street to raise cash for her widowed mother (Lupita Nyong'o). Robert Katende (David Oyelowo) runs soccer and chess clubs for a Christian Ministry working in Katwe. Introduced to the board game, Phiona is drawn in and progresses quickly as she develops her intuitive style of play.

Director Mira Nair guides the audience through the clash of cultures and values as persistent Katende overcomes classist obstacles to enrol his best players in a school’s championship. Success leads to more competitions and further obstructions to navigate around. The lessons Phiona learns to improve her play also apply to her life at large: avoid passive play and don’t surrender your King easily.

Partially filmed in Katwe itself, the vibrancy of life is captured along with some beautifully imagery of the low tech environment. The glassy skyscrapers and verdant forests of other films are replaced with equally beautiful huts and log piles. The slow and cerebral game of chess is well presented, with pacey sequences during championships and light education about the rules.

Watching this film 48 hours after attending the DUP conference to blog about it on Slugger O’Toole, my mind was busy comparing and contrasting the on-screen action with the discussion about Northern Ireland. Underachievement breeds underachievement without ambition, opportunity and intervention.

The experience of success changed Phiona, unsettling her as her dreams seemed out of her grasp when she returned home to life in Katwe. But why should she be “denied the glory of victory” just because of where she was born. Coach Katende believed in the kids of Katwe and fought for their rights to excel and be recognised. His wife was bought into his decision to sacrifice financial reward in the commercial sector to stick with his chess club.
“I call it Queening. In chess, the small one can become the big one. That's why I like it!”
Phiona’s older sister tried to take another route out of poverty, and is a ‘prodigal son’ figure in the film. Their mother has drive, determination and a vision (albeit a vision that she’s talked into believing). Phiona is both talented and stubborn and the film follows her slow pawn-like march forward until she reaches the far side of the board and becomes a Queen.

This could so easily have been an international film shown only to limited audiences in art house cinemas. I must admit that when the Disney logo appeared on screen at the start of the film I feared that I was about to sit through two hours of schmaltz. But the Disneyisation of the story seems to have been limited to the flashbacks, unsubtle storm clouds and boppy soundtrack and the fast cuts at the start that made be dizzy and wish that I’d sat further back in the Movie House screen.

Queen of Katwe is an underdog movie with enough grit to keep it real, without turning into a tear-jerker or overegging Phiona’s success. I know one hard to please eleven and a half year old who was glued to the story for the whole two hours. Well worth catching over this half term week before it completely disappears from local cineplex screens (Omniplex and Moviehouse).

No comments: