Queen of Katwe
When portraying the third world in films, it is usually common for there to be a lens of pity, so that us sitting comfortably in front of our screens can feel bad about our wealth. It is rare that we see an honest film that takes on its setting and characters bluntly; I saw it most prominently before in City of God, and now in Queen of Katwe.
Queen of Katwe is the true story of a Ugandan girl named Phiona (Madina Nalwanga), who is one of four children of their single mother Nakku (Lupita Nyong’o). In 2007 Phiona finds an escape to her life through chess, which she is taught and mentored by Robert (David Oyelowo), an engineering graduate that can’t find work due to his family’s socio-economic status. Phiona soon becomes a chess prodigy as she begins to beat other players in Uganda, and eventually internationally.
Mira Nair directs the film, and she frames the film less as an underdog sports film and more as an analysis of life in Uganda. Nair takes care and time to establish the village of Katwe, the customs, the people, and our characters’ everyday life. It is insightful; to see the life routines that people go through to survive and get food for just another day. But as said before, Nair doesn’t go for pity in this film; she instead shows us the strength of the characters as they beat against the tide of misfortune. Chess ends up being a very minimal part in the film, and this might be the problem with the film.
As much as I enjoyed the refreshing tone in Queen of Katwe, I couldn’t help checking my watch every so often. The pacing in this film is dismal; Nair spends too much time establishing characters we’re already fond of. I thought that the chess scenes could be an escape for the slower parts of the film, to experience an epic win or a heroic comeback, but Nair chooses to speed through these scenes instead and the entire thrill is lost. I understand that Nair is eager to show us the important things of Phiona’s story, but you can only feed the audience so many life lessons; every so often you need to entertain, and lift the tension.
The two celebrity actors of this film, Nyong’o and Oyelowo, deliver absolutely stellar performances. Their mastery in commanding the camera and their surroundings is astounding. But I was also very impressed with the child actors, who seemed incredibly natural in front of the camera; Madina Nalwinga herself is great in the lead role, going for subtlety rather than exaggeration.
So in the end Queen of Katwe is a very insightful film with great performances. There are some unforgivable pacing issues, which nevertheless don’t deter too much from the importance of the incredible story.