Movie Review: QUEEN OF KATWE – An African Simbi-rella story
By Esosa Omo-Usoh
In my view, the 3 major constituents of the arts/entertainment are Literature, Music and Cinema (the last of which includes television). Of the trio, literature considers itself as superior and usually assumes an uppity disposition especially when being compared with its cousins.
This would explain the outcry from the literary world when a musician, Bob Dylan, won this year’s Nobel Prize in literature. To lesser degrees, you can sense the uppitiness when Chimamanda Adichie tried to distinguish her feminist credentials from Beyonce’s, and in the typical adult refrain to younger minds to turn off the television and read a book instead.
But the truth is; as powerful as literature is as an art form, sometimes; cinema/television proves to be an even more powerful art form that transports you to never-never land with such breathtaking momentum, it leaves you on an almost permanent high for days. Thus far this year, Disney’s Queen of Katwe has proved itself a strong contender for the most exciting feel-good movie of the year.
Queen of Katwe starts out briefly in the present before taking us on a series of flashbacks that lasts almost the entire length of its 2-hour plus running time. A widow, Harriet Nakku (Lupita Nyong’o), lives in Katwe (a Ugandan slum) with her 4 children trying to eke out a living selling maize.
Her second daughter, Phiona (MadinaNalwanga) chances upon a local chess club coached by Robert Katende (David Oyelowo ) and thus began the journey that would transform their lives forever and transport the audience on a roller-coaster ride of emotions.
The slum that is Katwe as captured in the movie exemplifies the poverty porn in Africa that excites the West and draws our ire every time it is splashed in western media. However, there is no amount of ire from us that will change the fact that slums like Katwe represent everyday reality for a disturbing number of Africans across the continent.
The silver lining in this dark cloud, however, is that ( as was obvious in the BBC documentary, Welcome to Lagos) Katwe may be a slum but in its inhabitants, you see a tenacious hold on life and a will to survive that defies the sub-human living conditions they call home.
Where kids from affluent western societies would probably require a lifetime of therapy to get over the physical and psychological damage of such living conditions, the children of Katwe flick the dust off their shoulder and face life in full combat mode. Their childhood may have been stolen from them but their dignity and resilience are their shield and sword in the eternal battle between them and their hard knock life.
Their passionate participation in missionary run football games and chess club is their collective middle finger and bring-it-on-dare to life. Slum children that should ordinarily be handicapped by a lack of formal education develop an unusual proficiency in the highly cerebral game of chess, and run circles around uppity city kids who have a clear advantage over them both in formal education and elitist standard of living.
A slum-dwelling girl who made good in the elitist world of chess is the primary theme of Queen of Katwe. But the movie also dealt with other sub-themes which it pulled off with the ease and mastery of a Master chess player.
There was the sub-theme of single-parenthood and the challenges it engenders on the surviving spouse saddled with the responsibility of raising a family by herself. There was the expected fall out sub-themes from this; the involuntary child-labour that ensues when a single parent has to co-opt her underage children as unpaid labour in her maize selling business and the inevitable rebellion of the older child and her eventual descent into prostitution/cohabitiation.
There was the sub-theme of class war and the related theme of bullying. Even patriarchy reared its head where a clearly better chess player like Phiona had to apologise to a boy for beating him at chess, and where she had to doubt her own proficiency by believing that the champion chess player at an elitist school threw the game just so she could win.
The story of Queen of Katwe is a simple and straight forward one that was very well told. But by far the best part of Queen of Katwe was the performances of the characters.
As Phiona, newcomer, Madina Nalwanga was an excellent choice to portray the character. Her demure and self-effacing disposition starting out as she discovered the world of chess was endearing and got you rooting for her instantly. You could see the gradual transformation in her confidence as the movie progressed and she became more proficient at the game.
You empathised with her when upon a successful return from a chess competition in Sudan; she no longer felt an accepting affinity with her surroundings and living conditions. Where her mother saw arrogance, you saw one who had tasted of something other than what she had hitherto been used to, and who now realised there was more out there and had resolved to not be content with what she has and has been used to.
In Queen of Katwe; David Oyelowo, as Robert Katende, again proved himself to be a talented and resourceful actor. The ease with which he plays varied character and accents is a testament of his proficiency as a seasoned actor. As Katende, he pulled off a very believable Uganda/East African accent. He portrayed Katende with the right amount of restraint and passion required of one who is torn between pursuing self-advancement and providing for one’s family and a passion and commitment to others to whom one feels and has assumed a personal responsibility for.
But by far, the best performance in Queen of Katwe was by Lupita Nyong’o. I must confess that I was completely put off by her best supporting actress Oscar win for 12 years a slave and the whole Nyongo’asm that ensued. I felt Chinwetel Ejiofor was more deserving of an Oscar nod for 12 years. I was even more put off by the fact that she seemed to be more popular as a fashionista than as an actress. Her unimpressive blink-and-you-will-miss-it appearance in the Liam Neeson actioner Non-stop put me off even more.
In Queen of Katwe, I finally had my very first Nyongo’asm and it was a long and enduring one like a pig’s orgasm reputedly is! In Queen of Katwe, Lupita did not act. She embodied and became the character of Harriet Nakku. Her facial expressions alone would make an entire week’s worth of zikoko memes.
Great acting goes beyond reciting beautifully written lines in an impassioned monologue or exchanges. Sometimes, great acting comes from pulling off the barely noticeable nuances of the character an actor is portraying. It could the words said or left unsaid. It could be facial expressions that convey deep emotions more eloquently than words could. It could be the body language that transforms an entire performance.
Lupita’s role in Queen of Katwe was in supporting capacity but she was clearly the star of the movie. There is the stereotype image of the African mother as a resourceful, strong, passionate and loving mother hen. She will move mountains to fend for her children and she will run through hell to rescue her child. With equal passion, she will turn out a renegade child who had stretched her patience to the limit, and will welcome same child with open arms that will melt your heart.
In Queen of Katwe, Lupita was a living embodiment of this stereotypical African mother. You saw her strength in the scene where Phiona rushed home aboard a motor bike her brother who had been knocked down in an accident. And in the scene where she waded through muddy flood water to rescue her baby son from drowning. You saw her no-nonsense attitude and imperviousness to emotional blackmail when she replies her rebellious older daughter “I don’t need your forgiveness. I need you to sell maize to feed your brothers”.
You saw her mother hen attitude in the scene when she tells Oyelowo’s Robert Katende “These children you call our children. They are not yours. They are mine”. You see her resourcefulness in the scene in the hospital where she a pulls off the drip from her injured son’s hand to escape when she was informed to go settle the treatment bills.
You see a mother’s painful but steely resolve when she tells the doctor to stitch up her injured son’s wounds even where he says they had run out of painkillers. You see a mother’s resolve not to break down before her child in the scene her son informs her that Phiona is still living with Katende and she pulls a cloth across the clothes line to prevent her son from seeing the tears welling up in her eyes.
Another stand-out scene was the one in which she spurns the amorous overtures of a trader to whom she had gone to sell of her jewelry to raise cash to fund her daughter’s passion for chess. That scene was so beautifully shot. It left you with a will-she-or-will-she not dilemma as she considered his offer of One hundred thousand shillings if she would accompany him on a date. Lupita put on an acting clinic as she seemed to lean in whilst considering his tempting offer. You make a triumphant whoop whoop for her superior moral code when she replies “I will take the Twelve thousand shillings”. Lupita was an acting God in that scene!
For its 2-hour plus running time, Lupita was mine, yours and every African child’s mother growing up. She was the African mother without borders. In Queen of Katwe, Lupita gave a performance that should earn her another best supporting actress win at next year’s Oscars.
And just as Leonardo Di Caprio’s long awaited win for The Revenant this year was more for all the times the Oscars had undeservedly overlooked him despite the impressive body of work he had built up over the years (than for The Revenant), Lupita’s win next year (should it happen) will be for a deserving performance this year and to assuage concerns that her win for 12 years a slave was more about Hollywood’s condescending tokenistic gesture towards inclusiveness than her actual performance in 12 years a slave.
The only things I found off putting in the movie were the rainbow coloured graphics that flashed across the screen to announce the flashbacks. They seemed to detract from the seriousness of the movie. Then, there was also the fact that the choice of soundtrack in the first half of the movie did not really seem to connect with the somber mood of the movie. Davido’s Skelewu playing in the background during a chess competition was not only an inappropriate choice of soundtrack but it was also distracting.
At some point in the movie, I had wished they had used the local Ugandan language in the movie but with English subtitles. But as the movie progressed, I was glad that it was in English.
There is something about the union of the English language and Ugandan/East African accent and the deliciousness (and sexiness) that ensues that ravishes the aural palates. At one time, it’s like the fingers of a Spanish guitarist delicately strumming the strings of a Spanish guitar. At other times, it’s like an encounter between a sexy but unexposed village siren and a supposedly exposed city boy but unwise to the experience and intricacies of village life.
Hollywood is the universal symbol of Western cinema. Bollywood assumes that moniker for Indian cinema. Hong Kong, arguably, is the capital of Asian martial arts cinema. Nigeria’s Nollywood stands as the putative symbol of African cinema.
However, whilst Hollywood, Bollywood and Asian martial arts films have for long enjoyed massive crossover appeal in cultures and audiences different from their own, Nollywood, to a large extent, appeals to people of Nigerian and African decent and has not enjoyed much of the crossover appeal as the others.
It is my hope that as Slumdog Millionaire (albeit a British film) in 2008 won crossover appeal for Bollywood, Queen of Katwe (albeit a Disney film) will attract a rethink in Nollywood on how to properly tell African stories (without infecting it with puerile pseudo-Hollywood affectations), and ultimately win crossover appeal from a global audience for African cinema.
Queen of Katwe is not so much a Disney Cinderella story as it is an African Simbi-rella story. It is an affirmation that despite humanity’s diverse background, our stories and experiences have a resonating universal appeal. It proves that you can take the Disney story mould from Hollywood, plant it in the heart of Africa and find a story that not only fits the mould perfectly but will also run the audience through the same gamut of emotions you experience when watching a typical Disney film. Queen of Katwe is Lupita Nyongo’s coming out story as an actress post her Oscar award.