[Some weeks ago,] Disney hosted the South Africa premiere of Queen of Katwe; a movie based on the vibrant true story of Phiona Mutesi, a young girl from the streets of Kampala whose world rapidly changes when she accidentally discovers the game of chess, and unveils within herself, an unrelenting champion who soars in a world that had erased her, and many others like her.
Queen of Katwe (QOK) is a classic tale of finding one’s way out of the ghetto through an unusual ticket. Told by someone else, and from any other studio, the story would have been tough to watch. But director Mira Nair, along with Disney, turns this into an empowering tale of triumph and hope against many odds. The story provides a lens through which we witness the world of a young girl raised in the streets of Katwe, Kampala or most shanty towns in third world countries.
The cast is led by Hollywood stars, Oscar-winning Lupita Nyong’o who plays Phiona’s widowed mother Harriet, and NAACP-winning David Oyelowo who plays engineer-turned-sports-coach, Robert Katende; and introduces Ugandan talent, Madina Nwalanga who plays the protagonist, Phiona. Nair, who steers the ship, is the formidable storyteller behind world-renowned screenplays like The Namesake, The Reluctant Fundamentalist, Monsoon Wedding, among others. Nair lived in Uganda for almost 30 years and has a keen understanding of the country’s numerous lived experiences. The rest of the cast is largely Ugandan, with notable actors from South Africa who include Aaron Moloisi and Maggie Benedict.
From early on, the movie is confronting in its presentation of class differences in a post-colonial African state. While these differences are grave, they are handled with integrity that the truth of the story, and not the issues, lead the narrative. Kudos to Nair for this. It is important that QOK does not invoke pity or sympathy, but empathy.
QOK is littered with uplifting gobbets intended to position it as a glass-half-full-story-of-hope and not a glass-half-empty-story-of-despair. These gobbets, these phrases, are written on the back of minibus taxis, the side of buses, billboards and buildings. I found that spoon-feeding blatant. A black African audience or any other discerning audience would not need it. It robs the audience of a deeper involvement in the story and renders them too passive. However, understanding that Disney’s audience is primarily western, it may have been necessary to spoon-feed. Yet even with that consideration I couldn’t help being a little annoyed. A number of these gobbets extend into the script too, squarely driving the ‘hope’ narrative.
The execution of the script is incredible, from the children who play The Pioneers to the adults with supporting roles to Nwalanga, Nyong’o and Oyelowo. I always get nervous when Hollywood actors assume accents from African countries. Remember the tragedy that was Jennifer Hudson and Terrence Howard playing Winnie and Nelson Mandela respectively in Winnie? In QOK, Nyong’o masters a Ugandan accent, complete with affectations and colloquialisms. Oyelowo’s accent sounds more West African than East African though, but his portrayal of Robert is impressively sensitive and considered.
Motherhood is an anchor theme in QOK and a standout in Nyong’o’s performance is in how she relays the pragmatism of being a mother in the face of poverty. Harriet’s one goal in life is to feed, clothe and shelter her children, anything else distracts. So when her daughter comes home with a trophy, remarks like “If you can eat these prizes…” are not surprising. In such pragmatism lives a fear of heartbreak – her children’s heartbreak should they fail and her own consequent heartbreak for their hurt; and a thought spared for the next day’s obligations because life must go on. Within that pragmatism also lives the heart of a lioness set on protecting her children at whatever cost. Harriet may be poor, but her daughters will not fall prey to the boda-boda riding players of Katwe, and her son will get the medical attention he deserves even when she cannot afford healthcare.
Deep in the story, Harriet refuses money from her daughter who fled with a notorious boda-boda riding player. She also refuses the tempting offer of dinner with a handsome tradesman which comes with an inflated purchase of a dress she sells to raise money for her daughter. In both instances, regardless of a pungent desperation, she sticks to her principles. It may be seen primarily as pride but it is poverty with dignity, and Nyong’o carries this role without flaw.
The movie has a happy-ending. However, there’s a moment when Robert’s wife agrees for him to ignore a well-paying engineering job offer so that he continues mentoring The Pioneers. I find that to be a little too Hollywood and I cannot help but wonder if it is part of the true story. It does not seem like the practical response from a man who felt emasculated by earning less than his wife. Then again, passion is hardly reasonable, and Robert’s passion for the Pioneers is inspiring.
Nair’s confidence in her command of Ugandan and perhaps even African culture comes through in amazing micro-moments of happiness in the movie; from the finger-flicking victory gestures during chess games to the spontaneous dances to HAB and Young Cardamom’s ‘#1 Spice’.
All in all, QOK is a feminist story, without the reputational baggage of patriarchal rhetoric. It will leave you feeling warm and fuzzy, but not without having taken you through moments of heartbreak, horror, humour and joy. It’s worth watching twice. It is currently in circuit in South Africa at Ster Kinekor cinemas in Johannesburg at Montecasino, Sandton City, Northgate and The Zone, and Pretoria at Brooklyn and Sterland; in Namibia at Windhoek’s Maerua and in Zimbabwe at Harare’s Eastgate Shopping Centre.
Image: www.malaikamediaug.com; courtesy of Disney
This article first appeared in makoyanews.co.za