Friday, September 30

REVIEW: Queen of Katwe

Directed by Mira Nair
2016 Biographical Drama
2 hours 4 minutes
From Disney Studios

David Oyelowo
Lupita Nyong'o
Madina Nalwanga
Esther Tebandeke
Martin Kabanza
Ethan Nazario Lubega

There wasn't a single moment of this movie that I didn't enjoy.  I would not call it a great movie but I would call it a fine offering from the Disney folks, a loving look at Africa's underpriviledged and it certainly contains some fine acting.

There's no deaths, no violence, no swearing.... not even any bad guys.  I'm not even sure there's any other races in it although I was completely smitten with the main cast that it would be difficult for me to recall anyone else.   

In some regards it's not much different from many sports movies where some young man overcomes diversity to go on to be great at a given endeavor. In that regard one may feel one has seen this all before. A difference here is that the focus is on a teenage girl and the game of chess.  (I must say that if I played or even understood more about chess, I likely would have liked the film even more.) And of course a significant difference, at least from my American viewpoint, is that it focuses on people from another country, in this case Uganda.

Based on a true events, the story is built on a solid bedrock of love and hope and friendship and belief in others' abilities.  A young girl, Phiona, living with her widowed mother, Nakku, and assorted siblings in poverty-strewn Katwe, comes across a caring man, Robert, who coaches young people how to play chess as a means to do something with their brains, learn strategy, handle stress, develop or increase self-esteem, not to mention keep them busy and out of harm's way.  Nobody, especially not Phiona, expects that the experience will open up natural skills in her which will soon see her in competitions in several African nations and beyond.  Soon she realizes her skills may provide her with an exit strategy to get her family out of poverty

The film is certainly aided by the marquee allure of David Oyelowo and Lupita Nyong'o. He, of course, should have at least been Oscar-nominated for Selma in 2014 and she did cop the little golden man for her turn in 12 Years a Slave the year before.  I have followed Oyelowo's career because he appears to make such intelligent choices in the projects he joins and he radiates a kindness that I am drawn to.  He is certainly a great fit for this particular role of a devoted husband who turns down the offer of a better life and job to work with disenfranchised children.  

I appreciated Lyong'o's apparent knack for playing strong characters. Her Nakku is as fierce as those lionesses she shares the continent with.  As a tough and loving but skeptical mother, she wants her daughter to have the best opportunities but is not sure that either chess or Robert's mentoring is the way to achieve it. One has to win one's point with her... she is no pushover and is given to lecturing with a touch of threat on keeping one's word.

The focus, of course, is on Phiona, terrifically played by Madina Nalwanga in her film debut.  What a delight she is.  If she doesn't work, the film doesn't... simple as that.  I loved her scenes with Lyong'o... the mother-daughter relationship filled me with joy.  I loved the daughter's voice as she spoke to her mother.

The film certainly provides a sobering look at the poverty in this part of Uganda.  It does not take place in some village in the bush but rather on the immediate outskirts of a brick and mortar city.  By stepping outside their hovels, the city's skyline is quite visible.
Not cluttered with sentiment but it does allow one to bask in the warm glow of triumph... not just of chess but of the spirit.

India-born Mira Nair is carving out a nice directing career for herself with this film being added to Mississippi Masala, The Perez Family, Monsoon Wedding and Vanity Fair.

It is not cluttered with sentiment but that's not to say that you who are given to getting a little misty-eyed shouldn't bring a tissue along.  For those wanting more decency or wholesomeness in movies, here you go.

Next posting:
Another movie review

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