Queen of Katwe displays a more diverse Disney

21 Oct 2016 BY Joe Ursell in Film Features

9 mins
Queen of Katwe
Queen of Katwe

Queen of Katwe - the brilliant new film from Disney and director Mira Nair - tells the extraordinary true story of Phiona Mutesi, a young girl growing up selling corn on the streets of rural Uganda whose life is transformed when she discovers a gift for the game of chess, going onto become an unlikely international champion.

Based on an article by journalist Tim Crothers, the film is an empowering story for all audiences, and shows Disney embracing more diverse content and characters. Vibrant and hugely enjoyable, Queen of Katwe opens up a world that may seem alien to many of us, capturing life in the slums for young people in a similar manner to titles like Trash and Slumdog Millionaire.

Katwe is the largest of eight slums in Kampala, Uganda - one of the poorest and most troubled countries in the world. Prior to her chess success, Phiona lived in a 10ft-by-10ft room, with her mother Harriet and her siblings. Gravely ill at a young age, Phiona doesn't even know her own birthday, as such things are not accurately recorded in Katwe. At age 9 she had to drop out of school because her family could no longer afford it. Desperately hungry, she one day followed her brother in the hopes that he might be sneaking off to find food. In fact, he was heading to a place where Phiona would discover the power of community; a place where young people can find refuge from the struggle of their daily lives.

The Sports Outreach Institute is a Christian mission that provides relief and spiritual guidance through sport to some of the world's poorest people. As a young man, Robert Katende (played in the film by David Oyelowo) was a promising footballer until he found his calling as a missionary, joining the Institute and being assigned to Katwe. Katende began encouraging children to the join the project with the promise of a free game of football and hot food. However, he noticed that some children were just watching the game from the side-lines and needed a way to engage them as well. The answer was chess.

For the people of Katwe, chess is so obscure that it doesn't even have a name in the native Luganda language. Phiona was fascinated by its ability to hold a player's attention, and how excited it made the young people taking part. In a remarkably short period of time, she found herself taking part in tournaments far from Katwe, leading her to experience ways of life she could scarcely have imagined before. 

Throughout the film, chess is used as a metaphor for navigating some of the troubles in Phiona's life. In a dangerous society, where women are devalued, Phiona has to avoid careless moves and find 'safe spaces' to avoid the unwanted attentions of men. "Chess is a lot like my life," says Phiona. "If you make smart moves you stay away from danger, but you know any bad decision could be your last." The mechanics of chess play a crucial part in the film's narrative. Referring to the rule where a lowly pawn can be transformed into a queen, Phiona is inspired by the idea that 'the small one can become the big one'. 

Audiences might have expected Disney to gloss over harsher aspects of slum life - but far from it. Having herself lived in Uganda for many years, director Mira Nair knows the country inside out. The hardships that infect Phiona and her family's lives are never far away. These include horrifying floods that destroy their home, nearly drowning her brother; the prevalence of teenage pregnancy in the slum; parents having to choose between paying for food or their children's hospital fees; and subtle class discrimination, such as when Phiona and her teammates visit a more privileged school.

Phiona is, in many ways, an archetypal underdog figure. But one of the film's strengths is in how it uses the Disney model of storytelling to gently, but honestly introduce young audiences to more challenging content. And crucially, the film refuses to allow any of its characters to be defined by their social or economic circumstances.

The film is also an important milestone as the first Disney family film to feature a cast of exclusively non-white performers, set entirely in an environment not especially familiar to western audiences. Arriving in cinemas at the same time as the BFI Black Star season, it's fantastic to see commitment from major studios to telling more diverse stories on screen and trusting audiences to embrace them. The film is also a great example of a story told from a female perspective, made with and by a series of strong, multi-ethnic women.

Phiona's mother is played brilliantly by Lupita Nyong'o. In a tour-de-force performance, Nyong'o imbues her character with vibrancy, dynamism, intelligence and love, providing the film with crucial energy. Through her eyes, Nair's film is able to open itself up beyond Phiona's story and become a portrait of the community of Katwe itself.

The refusal to sanitise (within the parameters of a mainstream family entertainment) extended to the film being entirely shot in Johannesburg and Katwe itself. Many people from the local community were employed as extras, despite the fact that most of them had never seen a film or a camera before. 

However, over the course of the film, Phiona learns that sometimes the place you are is not the place you belong, and by the time the cast are united with their real-life counterparts over the end credits, the message is one of soaring optimism. Espousing the value of defeat as much as victory, the film contains universal messages about refusing to accept one's apparent lot in life, and triumphing over adversity. Even in the most trying of circumstances, you can still reset the pieces and play again. 

Films set in Africa remain frustratingly rare, but there are still a number of brilliant titles out there for young people who may be inspired by Queen of Katwe. Amma Asante's A United Kingdom - another film set largely in Africa and directed by a woman - makes a great companion piece to Katwe, while TimbuktuTsotsiAfrica UnitedThe First GraderHotel Rwanda and The Last King of Scotland all have brilliant educational value, and open up parts of the vast African world brilliantly. We hope there will be many more to come.

Portrait picture of Joe Ursell

Joe Ursell, Film Curator

Joe has a BA in Film & American Studies from the University of East Anglia and an MA in Contemporary Cinema Cultures from King's College London. He has worked with the BFI London Film Festival and on the production of ITV documentary 56 Up.

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