Film review – Queen of Katwe (Mira Nair, 2016)

Walt Disney Studios may have a long history of releasing underdog sports films, but their latest live action is nothing like any of its predecessors. In fact, it’s a breath of fresh air, as the crowd discovered tonight at the UK premiere.

Set and filmed almost entirely in the slums of Katwe in Uganda, the film tells the story of Phiona (newcomer Madina Nalwanga), a child who learns to play chess under the mentoring of missionary Robert (David Oyelowo). Much to the initial dislike of her mother Nakku (Lupita Nyong’o), she excels at the game and quickly starts competing at international competitions, giving her the opportunity to escape from certain poverty.

David Oyelowo and newcomer Madina Nalwanga

At the heart of the creation of the film was Mira Nair, the female director who knows Uganda inside out (she met her husband whilst researching the film Mississippi Masala in 1989). She spoke prior to the screening of the importance of filming the entire film in Uganda and leaving a positive message about the country outside of the anti-colonialism that is a constant recurrence in films about Africa (though A United Kingdom is very good too!). There should be no worries that this is a risky move for Walt Disney Studios.

The triangle of central characters played by Nyong’o, Oyelowo and Nalwanga are what helps the film achieve so much. Whilst Robert acts as a much-needed father figure to Phiona, he in turn proves antagonistic to Nakku, a mother who is keen to protect her second-eldest daughter for fear of her making the same mistakes as her elder sister Night.

Indeed, it is Nyong’o’s turn in the film that, for me, makes it a true triumph. As the protective mother to a daughter she fears is getting into something too unfamiliar, the result is a strong-willed role model for black women (as she is in real life). This is sadly in short supply in the modern cinematic landscape. This is a topic that will doubtless be explored in BFI’s promising Black Star programme throughout October 2016.

Festival director Clare Stewart, director Mira Nair and stars David Oyelowo and Lupita Nyong’o at the UK premiere

Nair does a great job with the telling of a captivating story throughout the chess matches. This is tricky territory for a filmmaker. If too long was spent explaining it, there’s a risk of boring your audience. Spend no time on it at all and you lose the core of the story. Get the tone wrong and you look completely foolish. Time was spent making sure that the metaphorical importance of the game was reflected in the development of Phiona as a character. It works perfectly.

It was a joy to see East Africa looking so vibrant, brought to life with some beautiful shots and an uplifting story. A total triumph.

Queen of Katwe is in UK cinemas now and can also be pre-ordered for home-viewing.

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