Last year, Disney came out with a little film called McFarland, USA. Whether it was because of the nondescript title, the bad release date, or because the film looked exactly like another dime-a-dozen inspirational sports biopic, the movie was sadly overlooked. It was quite a charming picture that utilized its multiracial premise in some clever ways and showed a surprising amount of heart. It’s quite underrated and I’d recommend giving it a look if you haven’t already.
That goodwill was a huge part of why I was willing to take a chance on Queen of Katwe, another Disney inspirational biopic that looked dull as dogshit from the trailers. It of course didn’t hurt that the film came out to overwhelming critical praise, with a 90+ percent Tomatometer as of this writing.
Alas, the movie didn’t quite meet my expectations. It’s good, to be sure, but not THAT good.
This is the story of Phiona Mutesi, here immortalized by Madina Nalwanga in her debut. Phiona’s story is still relatively new — the film’s narrative goes up to 2011, shortly after she played in the 39th Chess Olympiad at the age of fourteen. Not bad at all for a destitute girl from the slums of Uganda, raised as one of four siblings (the fifth one died) by a single mother (the father died, too).
The other main character here is Robert Katende, played by David Oyelowo. He was an orphan who paid his way through school by playing football (Reminder: that’s “soccer” for us here in America.) and hustling at speed chess. Robert has been struggling to get an engineering job, but the best he can get is a part-time coaching job with a local ministry. Robert splits his time between teaching football and teaching chess, but his heart is clearly in the latter. Plus, a few old injuries keep him from playing football over extended periods of time, so there’s that. Over time, he nurtures his students into chess prodigies, with Phiona rising to the top as his star pupil.
Let’s start with what the film does well. More specifically, let’s start with what the film does differently. After all, the basic premise of a teenage underdog sports story is so overdone that any presentation is going to live and die on what it does differently.
To start with, there’s no romance arc. Of any kind. Between any of the characters. The one debatable exception regards Phiona’s older sister (Night, played by Taryn Kyaze), the black sheep of the family, who attaches herself to a rich asshole (Theo, played by Maurice Kirya). And she’s the exception that proves the rule, where the film is concerned.
We’re told early and often that women in Uganda — especially in the slums — are simply unable to provide for themselves or their families without a husband. And the richer they marry, the better. So Night is willfully entering into a terribly ill-advised relationship out of tremendous social pressure. More to the point, she’s in a dirt-poor family with no connections or prospects, so it’s not like she has anything to lose. Her mother disagrees, hence the friction between Night and the rest of her family.
Lupita Nyong’o plays Nakku Harriet, the widowed matriarch of Phiona’s family. Here’s a woman who would quite literally see herself and all of her children dead before she prostituted herself or any of them to make a living. Moreover, Harriet only believes half of what she sees and none of what she hears — anything better than what her family has now (read: basically everything) is too good to be true and must be met with skepticism bordering on outright hostility.
Put simply, Harriet is unfailingly proud in such a way that it’s hard to tell whether she’s admirable or foolish. It’s understandable that she’s cautious with regards to her children’s safety and acts of charity from others (especially in such a corrupt place as Uganda). However, that caution and skepticism locks Harriet and her family in a cage with the demons they know. Nobody in that family will ever have any chance at a better life or happiness until Harriet is willing to hope for that better life and take a leap of faith towards it. But then that leads to a timeless and terrible dilemma for any parent: If there was a chance that your child could have a much safer and happier life that you could have no part of, would you let your child go? And either way, how much would it hurt to make that decision?
Lupita Nyong’o plays all of this more beautifully than I could possibly describe here. The other big highlight is David Oyelowo, who masterfully portrays an inspirational teacher and a loving family man while keeping the character nuanced and credible. Both of these performances are genuinely moving and they supply the film with the vast majority of its heart.
Speaking of Robert, it bears remembering that at first, he’s only looking for an engineering job. So of course he’s going to get a job offer at some pivotal moment and he has to make this huge decision about whether or not he’s going to leave the kids for his own economic advancement, right? Well, the plot does start down that path before abandoning the storyline completely for several years and two-thirds of the picture. And then, without giving too much away, the storyline takes a slightly different direction in a way that was quite refreshing.
More importantly, there’s something crucial to remember about this character: In any other inspirational racially-charged sports story (yes, even McFarland), Robert would most likely be the “white champion”. You know, the white man who serves as the real hero of the story because he was good enough to lend a helping hand to our colored protagonist? Yeah… this movie doesn’t have that character. Robert is black. His students are all black. Even the elitist asshats who refuse to acknowledge Robert and his students as anything other than slum shit are themselves black. There isn’t a single white person in this entire cast up until Phiona goes to the Olympiad, and even then the white people are mixed in with an international community of all colors.
Needless to say, this changes everything. It’s at least one less barrier between Robert and his students, which makes the relationship between them that much closer. In fact, because practically every character in this film shares a race and a nationality, it changes every single interaction and conflict between the characters. This is a double-edged sword.
On the one hand, it puts a much sharper focus on socioeconomic stratification, which is really where the bulk of the conflict stems from. When Phiona first arrives, all the other children make fun of her because of how bad she smells and how poor she looks. When Robert tries to get his students to their first big chess tournament at King’s College, everyone scoffs at the notion of poor diseased slum children being allowed into the more affluent central Uganda. The process continues when Phiona and her colleagues move on to the African continental tournament in Sudan, then on to the Olympiad, and so on and so forth. Thus the message is repeatedly sent that background and social status don’t always determine future success, especially in something so intellectual and universally accessible as chess. It’s a good message, earnestly delivered.
On the other hand, the message is also delivered with a pathetic lack of subtlety and a total lack of intelligence.
For example, Phiona is immediately a misfit because the other students mock her for her clothes and lack of hygiene. This is to be expected, because of course formula dictates that Phiona has to win her way into everyone’s good graces. That said, this method of getting that done is painfully stupid — like we’re supposed to believe all these other slum kids are so much better than she is? Fuck outta here.
Which brings me to another point: All the many ways in which Phiona and her colleagues are hindered by all their fellow Ugandans. I mean, all story needs conflict, that goes without saying. But conflict based on socioeconomic class? In Uganda, of all places? I’m sorry, maybe this is just a cultural thing, but it baffles me as an American that those who live in one of the world’s poorest countries could be so inherently prejudiced against one another because they live in a small village instead of a hut. Remember, we’ve got a teenager who’s fighting to represent her war-torn third-world country on an international stage. You’d think that would be enough of an underdog conflict without all this petty and cliched infighting bullshit.
That said, it is rather interesting to learn that even in Uganda, some places are more affluent than others and it’s not like everyone there is living in squalor. If that was the intended message, then mission accomplished. Even so, I wish the message didn’t have to be expressed in such dichromatic and cartoonishly simple terms.
This brings me to the film’s portrayal of how chess is played. Filmmakers have been struggling with how to make the game into compelling cinema since Searching for Bobby Fischer at least, and nobody’s done it nearly as well (to my knowledge, anyway). In this case, the filmmakers attempt to make chess dramatic by making its players as broad as possible. The actors endlessly mug for the camera, making absolutely sure we know about the frustrations and excitement going through them in the moment. Additionally, Phiona and her colleagues are all made to look like sweet good-hearted kids while their opponents are uniformly made to look like the most eminently hateable uptight douchebags. Most important of all is what happens in the immediate aftermath of the game: When the players win, they’re over the moon. And when they lose, it’s like the worst thing that’s ever happened in the history of ever!!! Seriously, I can only watch these characters act like spoiled winners and sore losers so many times before I lose interest and sympathy.
It would take a cast of incredibly seasoned actors to play all of this without descending into utterly ridiculous camp. These child actors, bless their hearts, didn’t have a prayer.
Which brings us at long last to our protagonist. Madina Nalwanga is a fine young talent who did the best she could with what she had and I wish her all the best going forward. But she really should’ve had more to work with. The plot takes place over several years, compressed into two hours by way of extensive time jumps. Couple this with the film’s overly broad approach to characterization (for the younger characters, anyway), and we’re left watching Phiona at her highest and lowest points without enough of the development in between. We’re basically watching the same old formulaic underdog protagonist development arc with huge chunks taken out of it.
I will give the film credit in that Phiona doesn’t start out as a natural. We can clearly see that she spent months, even years of hard work and study to get so good. Until the next flash-forward happens and then she’s a master. Seems to me like that might have been a much more interesting development arc than seeing her whiplash between “I’m the best that ever was!” and “I’m just a poor slum girl, how will I ever amount to anything?”
With all of that said, the editing leaves a lot to be desired. While the whole movie generally looks good for the most part, there are some moments with cuts that only last a split-second and a few scenes where I could tell ADR was being used. Then of course we have the aforementioned time jumps and broken development arcs to show us where so many chapters of the story went missing.
Queen of Katwe does a lot of things right, but just enough to draw attention to the things it does wrong. It’s a strongly feminist piece that’s greatly empowering to people of color and it portrays a third-world African country in a way you don’t see anywhere else in the media. This is all done beautifully, and I respect it tremendously for all of those accomplishments. But that doesn’t make it any easier to ignore the film’s ham-fisted and braindead portrayal of class inequality. Additionally, while Lupita Nyong’o and David Oyelowo both turn in fantastic performances of deeply nuanced characters, all the other characters look so much more flat by comparison.
The film twists around the underdog sports formula in a few clever and incisive ways, but still more was needed. The movie has more than enough heart to pass for a good film, but the potential to have been something truly great was woefully squandered.