Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Checkmate: Mira Nair's Queen of Katwe

Madina Nalwanga in Queen of Katwe

Mira Nair's exultant Queen of Katwe, based on the true story of a 9-year-old slum girl, Phiona (Madina Nalwanga), from Kampala, Uganda, who escapes her life of poverty by becoming a national chess champion in her teens, is a plucky tale of triumph  a rare inspirational film that doesn't sacrifice its dramatic integrity for easy sentiment. By letting the daily barbarity of slum life commingle with the bulging vibrancy that grows from a struggle to escape it, Nair brings forth an exuberance that's surprisingly nuanced and adds both uplift and credence to the tale of a young woman who seeks to live beyond her circumstances. Queen of Katwe is a feel-good movie that doesn't spare you the hardships that come from also feeling despair and defeat. Collaborating with screenwriter William Wheeler (whose sharp instincts help prevent the story from ever dampening) and cinematographer Sean Bobbitt (who, rather than imposing oppression on the characters, uses a strikingly colourful palette to boldly illuminate their strong need to survive it), Nair gets inside the tale of an unlikely girl who becomes a champion and depicts the various means by which she makes herself one. What Nair accomplishes with an intuitive flare is to show how chess becomes a mirror for Phiona into both herself and her environment so that she can learn to see beyond it.

Queen of Katwe opens with Phiona on the cusp of becoming the national chess champion, but it quickly shifts to tracing the turbulent road that got her there. From our first view of a squalid and teaming shantytown, we immediately perceive the slim odds for anyone trying to escape their conditions. Situated just outside Kampala, Phiona's single mother, Harriet (Lupita Nyong'o), is forced to raise her four children on her own after her husband has passed away, as well as another child. Each day, she sends them out to hawk husks of corn. She has to purchase stalks of maize from a dealer who'd be more than happy to provide the stalks if she'd do him some sexual favours for free. (Her answer is to spit at his feet.) When Phiona happens upon an outreach program supervised by Robert Katende (David Oyelowo), with the hope of getting some free porridge to quell her hunger, she ends up captivated by his use of chess to teach the students (a group he calls "Pioneers") to overcome the obstacles before them. While Phiona is not initially welcomed into the group (since she has been unable to bathe), her quick instincts and genius for the game make her out to be a natural who Katende feels can take his group into championship matches.

If Harriet is a tenacious woman whose sense of pride propels her family through the demoralizing cycles of impoverishment, Katende has an equal determination to transcend her circumstances by instilling in his charges the ability to think through adversity. This even includes getting past class biases, especially when he enters them into a competition at an exclusive secondary school, King's College Bodo, whose headmaster doesn't want to see the event tarnished by the inclusion of street kids. Katende raises the exorbitant fees and triumphantly enters his charges into the competition. Nair shows with a quiet subtlety how Harriet's steely intelligence and Katende's tenacity of Katende play huge parts in shaping Phiona's emotional life as she rides the curve of both victory and defeat in her journey to become a chess master. Queen of Katwe is firmly rooted in the process of self-discovery that's part of the making of any sports champion, but it's not often explored in movies (from Chariots of Fire to The Natural) that are only interested in winning.      

Lupita Nyong'o and David Oyelowo

Madina Nalwanga is remarkably pliant as Phiona, playing her with a guarded intelligence that is as much a tickling pride in her abilities as it is a shield from a world that could just as easily leave her unprotected. For her, the chess pieces are not just part of a game, but stepping stones to a psyche that's in the process of becoming yet has been limited by social neglect. David Oyelowo displays more range here than he did playing Martin Luther King Jr. in Selma, where he was ultimately swallowed up by the picture's solemnity. As Katende, he's buoyant and shrewd, musical and playful, and he displays a keen passion that makes the character a perfect mentor to kids who aren't yet convinced of their strengths. Katende's dedication comes from his own painful experiences of having been orphaned at a young age. Harriet may be a victim of circumstances, buy Nyong'o goes against the grain of victimhood and gives this woman a steely intelligence that never wavers and provides a healthy tenacity that Phiona clearly inherits. In 12 Years a Slave, Nyong'o had little to do but be beaten, but in Queen of Katwe, she has a dynamism that illuminates in Harriet her great strength as well as her pain -- a combination of resources she draws on to protect her family and help them survive.

Although Disney produced and distributed the film, Queen of Katwe is not a Disney film in the traditional sense. Based on Tim Crothers's book, The Queen of Katwe: A Story of Life, Chess, and One Extraordinary Girl’s Dream of Becoming a Grandmaster, the script makes no easy concessions to a North American audience even though it's highly accessible. Studio executive Tendo Nagenda, who helped launch the film, and whose family grew up in Uganda, had a vested interest in telling the story of Phiona, while Mira Nair, who had been living in Uganda, eagerly took up the project with both fervour and imagination. What she accomplishes in Queen of Katwe is a little daredeviltry. She takes what could have been a formulaic story and goes beyond its tropes into the more mysterious terrain of what makes a genius. And like her hero, she finds her own form of triumph.

– Kevin Courrier is a freelance writer/broadcaster, film critic and author (Dangerous Kitchen: The Subversive World of ZappaRandy Newman's American Dreams33 1/3 Captain Beefheart's Trout Mask Replica,Artificial Paradise: The Dark Side of The Beatles Utopian Dream). Courrier teaches part-time film courses to seniors through the LIFE Institute at Ryerson University in Toronto and other venues. His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism.

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