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.

Film review – A United Kingdom (Amma Asante, 2016)

Kicking off the 2016 BFI London Film Festival in style tonight was Amma Asante’s triumphant ‘A United Kingdom’. After the glitz and glamour of the red carpet, the film’s central themes proved to be an apt starting point for a programme that festival director Clare Stewart claims will focus on diversity.

The film tells the true story of Ruth Williams (Rosamund Pike) and Seretse Khama (David Oyelowo). Khama is the King of Bechuanaland (the country now known as Botswana) and in 1948 he marries London girl Williams amid opposition from their families and countries, sparking a political debate that led to the country’s independence movement.

Asante is the first black woman ever to direct an opening night film at the London Film Festival, and she was keen to point out the relevance of her being the person at the helm telling this important story.

“[The Botswanians] were comforted that it was going to be told through the gaze of a woman of colour… There was relief, and of course a curiosity, as to how their country, and they as a people, would be reflected on screen.”

Pike and Oyelowo

The resulting picture is a moving portrayal of a changing time in two countries with a message that is as valid today as it was then. True, there has been much progress in the world since 1948, but looking back at the changes in the past 70 years should give humanity hope that as much progress can be made again in the next 70 years. Indeed, many comments from the stars on the red carpet referenced that there is still much wrong with the world and a film like ‘A United Kingdom’ serves to highlight that we should never give up the fight. This is a fact not lost on Asante, especially given the marginal bandwidth available in the film industry to both people of colour and women – something that should be considered one of the big talking points of this year’s festival.

Oyelowo and Pike work together perfectly, each delivering powerful performances worthy of the story they are telling. The film’s genesis lies with Oyelowo, who started writing the script six years ago after reading the Susan Williams book Colour Bar, and his passion for the story seeps into his emotional delivery.

The film perhaps suffers from appearing saccharine, with the story telling us that their love was so strong it overcame political opposition and brought a continent together. The truth is that the film isn’t too far from being perfectly accurate, with only a couple of timeline changes for the benefit of pacing.

This is a story that is one piece of a much larger puzzle that can be filled in with what can be seen as companion films: Mandela – Long Walk To Freedom (2013) and Hotel Rwanda (2011) are two good recent examples. There is a rich history that is still being written in Africa, from which deeply moving stories continue to be drawn in both film and literature.

It is remarkable that the actors and actresses involved knew little of the source material before receiving the script. It is likely that the same can be said of the many viewers this film will eventually reach – I have to admit that I was also blissfully unaware of the history of Botswana before seeing this film. Khama’s story isn’t one that has been well-documented and that is something that Oyelowo and Asante will be more than happy to rectify.

A truly important story told in such a captivating manner deserves to be seen. A wonderful start to the festival.