Queen of Katwe
Director - Mira Nair
Cast - David Oyelowo, Lupita Nyong’o, Madina Nalwanga
Rating - 4.5/5
It took Mira Nair almost 20 years to go back to her roots… It took turbulent flights with her Amelia Earhart biopic, frequent failure at the box office, the euphoria of Punjabi weddings, and Bengali existentialism; but it all led to this. It took almost 20 years, but Mira Nair made the incredible journey from the slums of Bombay to the slums of Katwe.
Queen of Katwe is Nair’s best film in almost a decade. The last time she was this good was in The Namesake. On first glace, it doesn’t appear to be like any film she’s made before, but look closely and you will find the same themes – family, feminism, identity - passed from one film to another, like secret recipes from mothers to daughters. This movie is as much a romantic homage to the melodramas of the past as it is a radical, path-breaking piece of modern filmmaking. It is one of the best films of the year.
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As fantastical it may seem, it always takes a true story to inspire such art – and Phiona Metusi’s true story is as unbelievable as they come. She was born into extreme poverty in the Ugandan town of Katwe, selling corn at traffic signals and wondering if life were any better as a boy. She is so similar to Chaipau, Nair’s protagonist from Salaam Bombay! Just like him, she is illiterate, and just like him she is feisty and intelligent. She survives in a cruel world, a world in which hope comes and goes like the rain that washes away the homes in her slum. But unlike Chaipau, Phiona is gifted. She doesn’t know what chess is yet, but soon enough, she – and the world – will discover her prodigious talent.
Having seen Katwe, the one film that kept coming to mind was Born into Brothels. Have you seen it? If you haven’t, you’re in for one of the most moving cinematic experiences ever. But for those of you who have, you know that you can never, till the time your memory fades away, forget young Avijit.
Avijit was born into a brothel, but during the course of the film, he discovered that he was a gifted photographer. Photography was his lifeline. It helped him evade a grim future that is all but inevitable when you are born into poverty.
And poverty is same all over the world - from the streets of Bombay to the alleys of Sonagachi to the slums of Katwe.
Yes, this is a radical film. It is set in Africa, it features an all-black cast - which is still, in 2016, a rare sight in mainstream American cinema. There is no white saviour to help these kids, no white missionary to build churches for them. What they have instead is their coach, Robert Katende, played with Oscar-worthy ferocity by David Oyelowo.
In a film full of magnificent performances, Oyelowo proves once again, after blowing the lids off of Academy voting when he didn’t even get nominated for Selma in 2014, that now is the time. He is the man. Let’s make it happen. And while we’re at it, nominating Lupita Nyong’o for her stunning, strong and beautiful work in this film would go a long way – for diversity, for movies, and for justice.
But anchoring it all is Madina Nalwanga, chosen from hundreds of girls, as Phiona. There is a quiet intensity about her. She is the Disney princess our world needs right now.
Queen of Katwe is a real movie, with real people, real drama and a real sense of place. It’s aided by a soundtrack filled with local flavour, and despite being a Disney film, it isn’t afraid to shy away from the harsher truths of slum life. When it hits, it hits hard. But there’s humour in the unlikeliest of places, there’s a spirit that just refuses to die. No matter what, that chin stays up. On a side note, do not miss the end credits.
Like Salaam Bombay!, like City of God, like Slumdog Millionaire; like the recent Disney sports movies that come and go, barely ruffling a feather: The Million Dollar Arms and McFarland USAs and Secretariats, Queen of Katwe is the kind of movie that will attract an audience only through word of mouth.
So start talking.