An annual staple in Disney’s release schedule, the production company’s latest live-action sporting drama (I’ve checked and chess is indeed a sport) is quite unlike anything they’ve made in recent years. On the surface, there are a number of comparisons to be made between Queen of Katwe and previous films such as McFarland USA, Million Dollar Arm and Cool Runnings, in that each is a remarkable true story that revolves around cultures clashing. But if you dig deep enough, you’ll find that Mira Nair’s picture is subtly progressive in the way that it deals with the familiar territory.
Shot in the slums and cities of Africa, the Disney production is the first of its kind to feature a story that’s strictly told from the perspective of the people of colour at the centre of the narrative. Not only isn’t there a white protagonist through which we see events unfold, but there’s hardly a white person to be seen during the entire film; something which, shamefully, happens far too little in mainstream cinema.
The combination of real locations and real people – the younger cast, including the revelatory Madina Nalwanga, are all newcomers who bring a sense of truth and authenticity to their roles – means that ‘Katwe’ could be seen as quite the risk for Disney; especially when you consider the darker themes of teenage pregnancy and unrelenting poverty that are unflinchingly dealt with throughout (a gasp-inducing moment in which a young boy is hit by a car is one of the film’s most shockingly brutal sequences).
Yet, despite the mature elements of the story, Queen of Katwe succeeds in being one of the most vibrant and uplifting stories that the studio have dealt with. The real life story of Phiona Mutesi, a young girl who grew up in the slums of Katwe only to become a world champion chess player, has all the earmarks of a Disney production. Featuring messages about never giving up on your dreams, working hard to achieve them and the important role that family can play in that – the mother/daughter relationship is wonderfully played by Lupita Nyong’o and Nalwange – there’s enough here to leave you on that ‘Disney high’, grinning from ear to ear, and with a lump in your throat.
This is what Disney do best, but, in this instance, it’s the way they’ve done it that makes Queen of Katwe more memorable and more worthwhile than usual.
Image credit to http://www.impawards.com