Queen of Katwe is a ‘Disney movie’ set in Uganda. But it’s also a Mira Nair film and part of David Oyelowo’s overall project to bring African stories into mainstream cinemas. These three factors ought to combine to create a significant box office hit. The film itself is very good and had the same emotional impact for me as A United Kingdom. Unfortunately, however, Disney as a corporation seems to have tripped up in trying to promote the film. There are many websites, videos and stories online about the original project and the Disney film, so perhaps the problem is that the Disney brand is so deeply embedded in the public consciousness that audiences are unable to negotiate it in different ways. Either way, the result is that despite an initial ‘wide’ release in the UK and US, Queen of Katwe hasn’t found the audience it seeks. I finally managed to get to a local screening organised by Keighley Film club, which is able to screen films in our 1913 Picture House. I hope many more find it on DVD/Blu-ray and TV in the coming months.
The story is set in Katwe, a district of Kampala (population 1.5 million) the capital of Uganda. It’s a true story and in the final credits we meet the ‘real’ characters in the drama. Katwe appears to have a reputation both as an innovative centre for artisan manufacture and as a sprawling ‘slum’ district. In the film it comes across much like the shanty towns of other African cities with low quality housing thrown up alongside the railway track. In other descriptions, Katwe is presented as the worst kind of slum with no sanitation, no secure accommodation and a trap into which the poor from rural areas and other parts of the city are destined to fall. As photographed by Nair’s cinematographer Sean Bobbit it looks bright and lively, but also plagued by sewage and subject to flooding. In this unlikely setting Harriet (Lupita Nyong’o) is the single parent of three children. The two younger children, close in age, are Brian and Phiona (Madina Nalwanga) and it is the latter who is the focus of the film. (The older daughter Night provides the illustration of what Phiona might become if she gives up the discipline of chess.) The film’s title logically refers to Phiona who, through her success in chess tournaments, will become a celebrated media star. But it is also possible to see her mother as a ‘Queen’, simply on the basis that Lupita Nyong’o is such a stunning star presence with the stature of a model and the experience of red carpet occasions as well as her own distinguished family background. There is no reason why mothers in Katwe shouldn’t be beautiful, but Nyong’o certainly stands out.
Phiona discovers chess alongside Brian in a community ‘school’ run by an outreach worker for a Christian charity. Robert Katende himself had a difficult childhood. You can learn about his life through a documentary made by Mira Nair and available on Vimeo. The same documentary is also available on The Queen of Katwe website from Sport Outreach. Katende’s childhood involved the dangers of living in the bush with the violence of the DRC spreading over the border. In the film he becomes an ex-footballer who has had to retire because of injury and a qualified engineer with an excellent degree thwarted by the recruitment policies of local firms. This latter is explored through the class divisions in Ugandan society when Katende takes his brightest hopes, including Phiona and Brian to a competition in an upmarket school where the Katwe children are at first treated as aliens.
At first glance, it isn’t difficult to see why Disney agreed to fund the film. It combines two attractive ideas for the studio – a bright and intelligent young female lead character (for a studio that has brought us Brave and Moana in the last few years) and a solid genre narrative as a ‘sports movie’ with a charismatic ‘coach’ and enough dramatic conflict, but also a ‘happy ending’. As a bonus it is based on a true story. Working with a director like Mira Nair is perhaps an innovation for the main Disney brand (as distinct from Disney’s previous ‘adult brands’ such as Touchstone). Queen of Katwe actually originated from ESPN, Disney’s majority-owned sports company in the form of a magazine article and book by Tim Crothers, but it is branded with the Disney logo. Nair has a distinctive approach which includes work with non-professional actors (e.g. in Salaam Bombay) as well as a background in documentary filmmaking. Madina Nalwanga had not acted before but she has trained as a dancer and the skills she has learned helped her to maintain composure in the role. Mira Nair also has the local knowledge that is so important in making this kind of film in a country with limited film infrastructure like Uganda. She is married to a Ugandan and in 1991 she made Mississippi Mermaid which followed the story of an East Asian family from Uganda migrating to the American South. That story focused on the daughter of the family played by Sarita Choudhury. In the case of Queen of Katwe, it would appear that the Disney ‘front office’ kept its distance and Nair was able to make the film on her own terms in Kampala with support from the South African film infrastructure which has interests in East Africa.
The problems for this film have come in distribution and exhibition. In the UK, Disney is able to organise cinema ads and trailers that target the same audience as the Disney film that is showing. When I saw the film there were no children in the audience which was predominantly 55+ but we got trails for new Disney films. Disney needed two strategies to sell the film to two different audiences in multiplexes and in specialised cinemas. They failed to reach audiences in both. I think the situation in North America was similar. The critics (professional and amateur) rated the film highly but audiences didn’t find the film. Perhaps Queen of Katwe is a ‘safe’ film in terms of its story, but though it pursues a genre narrative, it avoids easy sentimentality and sticks largely to the facts. It doesn’t need any white characters to in any way ‘legitimise’ Phiona’s success as a chess player. I can imagine it would have been tempting for Disney to press for Phiona’s story to end up in the US. But the film sticks to two overseas trips – to Sudan and Russia. At the end of the film, a song from Alicia Keys appears. I thought this was out of place (I like Ms Keys and the song, but it didn’t fit here for me, even though she wrote it specifically for the film). There’s a clip here explaining why she wrote it – and some comments by the cast about the music scene in Uganda. I urge you to see this film and if you want to learn more I suggest looking at the various clips, interviews and documentaries on YouTube. Here’s the trailer (with the Alicia Keys song):
and here’s a documentary from NTV Uganda: