“Under African Skies”
(from the song of the same name by Paul Simon on the 1986 Graceland
album, joined in this video by Miriam Makeba and his collaborative
South African musicians in the 1987 African Concert in Zimbabwe)
Review by Ken Burke
Take care, curious readers, for plot spoilers gallop rampantly throughout the Two Guys’ insightful reviews. Therefore, be warned, beware, and read on when you’re ready to be transported to … wherever we end up. Please protect your eyes from the dazzling brilliance.
Queen of Katwe (Mira Nair)
In this based-on-fact film we begin in 2007 with soon-to-be chess prodigy Phiona Mutesi living in the slums of Kampala, Uganda with her mother and 3 siblings, all struggling to get by on a daily basis until Phiona shows unusual aptitude for this revered board game, soon winning several championships against many supposedly better players, becoming a local hero.
What Happens: We begin this fact-based-film in Kampala, Uganda, 2011, where teenage Phiona Mutesi (Madina Nalwanga) is about to begin a chess match, then much of the rest is told in flashback beginning in 2007 where we see her at age 10 living in Kampala’s Katwe slum-district with her widowed mother Harriet Nakku (Lupita Nyong’o), her slightly-older-sister Night (Taryn Kyaze), along with younger brother Brian (Martin Kabanza) and toddler Richard (Ivan Jacobo, then Nicholas Levesque when he’s slightly older). Like all their neighbors, this family lives in extreme poverty with the children expected to bring in whatever cash they can from selling Mom’s cooked maize in the crowded marketplace but family-tensions are already arising both from Night’s interest in motorbike-boy Theo (Maurice Kirya) and Phiona’s fascination with Brian’s chess lessons taught by Sports Outreach Ministry social worker Robert Katende (David Oyelowo), doing the best he can to support his family while waiting for the engineering job that he’s college-trained for to finally open up (he also coaches football—what we in the U.S. call soccer—based on his past success in the sport, which he had to abandon because of injuries some years ago which led him to learn chess, becoming a champion in order to gain money for his tuition). One day when Robert sees Phiona peeking through cracks in the walls of his youth chess club he invites her in, then is amazed at how quickly she picks up the nuances of the game, especially because she’s doing it all by instinct not being able to read anything let along a chess-strategy-manual (although that will come later when she frequently visits Robert’s home, giving his teacher-wife an opportunity to marginally-home-school the girl, bringing Phiona up to basic literacy level so that books are no longer closed to her).
By 2008 Robert feels his crew (especially Phiona and a younger boy, Benjamin [Ethan Nazario Lubega]—with a much better display of temperament than Joseph [Edgar Kanyike] who’s disgusted when Phiona beats him, as we see other boys are also consistently sore losers whenever a girl is victorious over them) is ready to compete at a tournament to be held at King’s College Budo (a secondary school close to Kampala), but the event director doesn’t really want slum children in his competition (just as Phiona wasn’t initially accepted by Robert’s other kids because of her body odor, with their rejection encouraging her to bathe), although he says they can compete if they pay the requisite fees. None of them, including Robert, can afford that; however, he risks aggravating his old injures (much to his wife’s displeasure) in a football match which provides the necessary cash. At this upper-class-venue, though, his players somewhat embarrass themselves in contrast to their refined opponents from local private schools by eating with their hands and sleeping on the floor of their dormitory rather than on the beds provided. Nevertheless, what matters is they win many of their matches, with Phiona defeating the boy considered the best player in this competition (those of you who understand chess-tournament-structure better than me would know if each of these players must defeat several opponents in order to take the top prize, but here Phiona gets the gold medal seemingly just for beating this one overly-confident-kid; maybe she also won other rounds that aren’t shown). Robert’s happy team is celebrated back in Katwe (Harriett even rescinds her initial objections to the training time her kids aren’t out selling goods, with the promise that their skills might help raise them out of poverty), but problems soon arise because Brian’s badly sideswiped by a motorbike guy (not Theo, but Night has gone off to live with him, now making money as a prostitute; even though she offers some support to her family it’s all Phiona can do to convince her angry mother to accept it) so Phiona has to give all of their available cash to another guy with motorbike transportation to rush Brian to the hospital.
His injuries are patched up, although Harriett has to sneak him out because she has no money to pay for her son's services, then when they all return home they find that their landlady's evicted them for non-payment of rent. With Robert’s help they find shelter in a small, old, abandoned church
(with no roof), soon to be joined by Night after Theo becomes bored with her. In the midst of all this difficulty (as Robert helps whenever, however he can—using a chess analogy he says “Don’t be quick to tip [concede] your king [thereby losing the match]. You must never surrender.”) Phiona continues to elevate her skills, though, so that by 2009 she wins the Uganda National Junior Tournament (even showing her coach some moves he hadn’t anticipated in one of their training sessions), then a U.N.-sponsored International Tournament in Sudan (with financial help from her community to pay for these travels). Situations are getting more complex at home, though, with on the one hand Harriett's making some sacrifices on her daughter’s behalf such as selling a beautiful dress—a gift from her mother—in order to buy paraffin for Phiona to burn at night while reading her strategy manuals but on the other hand Phiona's getting a swelled head (along with some new hairstyles) because of her victories, refusing to do her share of family chores in order to keep up her sole concentration on chess. She’s finally brought back down to Earth, though, when she qualifies for an Olympiad in Russia where she’ll become a Grand Master if she wins over 50% of her matches but loses to a Canadian woman in the finals forcing her to learn how to overcome her sense of humiliation, difficult as that is. The whole family also faces hardships when the rains come, as most of their meager possessions are washed out of their exposed-to-the-elements-home, then Night discovers that she’s pregnant.
As we reach 2011, Phiona’s clashed with Harriett enough that she’s moved in with Robert and his wife, Sarah (Esther Tebandeke), although our primary mother and daughter do reconcile at this time; Phiona and Brian manage to get scholarships to attend Sarah’s school; Robert’s finally been offered a engineering supervisor’s job but turns it down to continue working with his chess team (Sarah’s very supportive); then we return to the big tournament (in Kampala) where the film began as Phiona meets a tough challenge but survives to triumphant victory, as all ends happily when money that Phiona’s been given from chess organizations because of her victories is used to buy a nice house in the countryside where all of her family (including Night’s new baby) now can live comfortably.
So What? Once again we’re in “based on a true story” territory (of 70 films I’ve reviewed in 2016, 23 of them fall into this grouping [4 are documentaries]), but this time we have solid assurances that most of the named characters we see on screen are based on specific people rather than being composites because as part of the final credits each of the involved actors comes on screen for a brief time to be identified with their actual Katwe counterparts. (There’s also a further sense of verified authenticity in that the slum scenes were shot in Katwe—along with some done in Johannesburg, South Africa—so generally speaking we see the actuality of this story rather than the more usual use of re-creations in which, for example, Canadian cities stand in for supposed localities in the U.S., Europe, etc. in order to keep production costs down). What’s also notable about this film is that director Nair herself has lived in Kampala since 1990 (when she visited Uganda for research on her film Mississippi Masala ) yet was unaware of Phiona and her accomplishments until a Ugandan-descent-Disney-executive, Tendo Nagenda, made Nair aware of Phiona with Tim Crothers' book published for ESPN (a Disney company), The Queen of Katwe: A Story of Life, Chess, and One Extraordinary Girl’s Dream of Becoming a Grandmaster (2012). Nair notes this near-miss at the beginning of the 2nd video noted below in the Related Links section, which could simply be the result of a busy filmmaking career which often takes her away from her homebase or is indicative of the reality of how news coverage in any locality, if it’s like what I experience in the U.S., often is so concentrated on the “hot stories” of what sells print and electronic journalism—wars, crime, political discord, unrest among the populace over various divisive issues—that even when these positive “soft stories” appear they don’t usually get the lead-section-attention that keeps them in the forefront of public awareness (this filmic adaption of the book does highlight local newspaper awareness of Phiona’s triumphs, although she may have received more attention in her immediate Katwe community than in the country overall).
Whatever the disconnect may have been between chess champ and filmmaker, her accomplishments are now the content of an international corporate conglomerate (Disney, of course) primed for distribution in a vehicle with 2 emerging-star-presences so hopefully the victories of Ms. Mutesi and those like her around the world will become better known against the otherwise-incessant-coverage of worldwide war, economic turmoil in the industrialized world, and various aspects of viral plagues/natural disasters, all of which work to increase our anxiety about continuance of our species (and others, with evidence of eradication due to human activity) along with the planet we all inhabit. Whether Queen of Katwe will find the audience that another tale of a real-life-hero has already accomplished—Sully (Clint Eastwood; review in our September 15, 2016 posting), with a domestic take of about $105.3 million after a month in release—is yet to be seen, given that Queen …’s been out for only 2 weeks, is just now making a wide expansion into a bit over 1,000 theatres (pulling in a little under $3 million so far) and has to contend with upcoming competition from both Oscar-bait-possibilities such as The Birth of a Nation (Nate Parker; debut on October 7, 2016) and mass-audience-attractions based on best-sellers such as The Girl on the Train (Tate Taylor; a mystery-thriller also set for October 7) and Inferno (Ron Howard; release scheduled for October 28, 2016, with Tom Hanks again as Dan Brown’s brilliant symbol-detective, Robert Langdon). Given it’s stars-factor-recognition and Hollywood’s desire to avoid another “OscarsSoWhite” protest about the lack of diversity in major-awards-nominees this film may be remembered for its fine collection of strong acting come year’s end but even there it may be overshadowed by whatever comes with The Birth of a Nation, depending on how well Parker’s film lives up to its pre-release hype (or becomes bogged down by controversies impacting that director).
Final Comments: This is such a sweet, charming, heartwarming film that to say anything negative about it seems akin in cruelty to a person kicking an aging, blind, 3-legged-dog (although if you’d enjoy that sort of thing you might also want to either volunteer as a community organizer for Donald Trump [learning to be “smart” enough to not pay federal taxes, thereby depriving all your fellow-citizens of much-needed-services as constantly-shrinking-budgets fail to repair our collapsing national infrastructure] or you could listen to Mason Williams sing about "Them Dog Kickers"
[from his 1969 album The Mason Williams Listening Matter]). One of my fine
viewing companions was quite pleased that Queen of Katwe features no gunfights, explosions, car chases, larceny or other criminal activity (although it’s sad that Phiona has to pay a motorbike-boy to take her injured brother to the hospital—especially when he’d just been hit by another young guy racing through crowded city streets on another motorbike—but that’s just forced economic survival in the slums, not really what you’d call a criminal act). But such enthusiasm hasn’t translated into universal critical approval, though, with a notable split between those surveyed by Rotten Tomatoes (91% positive reviews) and Metacritic (73% cumulative score; more details on both of these in the links below), which mirrors what I’ve found in the high praise from my local-area critics (for example, David Lewis in the San Francisco Chronicle says “But what really stands out is the authentic vibrancy of urban Africa—few, if any, Hollywood movies about the continent have ever felt this real.”) vs. the dismissive C+ from Joe McGovern in Entertainment Weekly who says that Nyong’o’s radiant “beauty, dignity, and noble suffering on screen” (maybe this is how Trump could learn to talk about women that he’s not formerly nor currently related to) “is undercut by a script teeming with wooden platitudes, special lessons learned, and the overbaked dialogue of a Joan Crawford melodrama.” We all see what we see, if we’re being honest, no matter how divergent that may be from those around us, although in this case I side with the enthusiasts rather than the detractors.
Like Lewis says, Nair “has a field day with the colors of the costumes and the hardscrabble city landscapes, but she neither glorifies nor vilifies her canvas. It just is. We don’t feel sorry for these financially underprivileged folks — we root for them.” Indeed, the film is a gloriously-presented-visual-experience as vividly-hued-clothing gives some vibrancy to the dull squalor of the slum surroundings, just as with the reverse when Robert’s kids’ ragged, unkempt appearance stands out against the tailored uniforms and proper manners of their competitors when they venture to King’s College Budo, all of which is indicative of the subtle message of this film about how the extraordinary can emerge from the unexpected (even when it's rough-hewn due to lack of opportunity or experience, appearing naïve to us in industrial environments, as with Phiona’s 1st trip on an airplane when the ascent into clouds causes her to ask Robert if they’re entering Heaven). Sure, the action here is all low-key (especially with chess matches which aren’t easy to depict with dramatic-flair unless you know the complex rules of this game—given the intensity of these tournaments I guess I should be saying “sport,” but I’ve yet to transcend my indoctrination of that word referring to something that occurs on a field or other playing surface in some sort of an arena) so that we get a lot of “checkmate” scenes to demonstrate Phiona’s skillful-mastery over a variety of opponents along with seeing the most-crucial-moment of the contest to aid the understanding of those not conversant with the tension that goes into a “game” where there are literally thousands of considerations on every move. (Pawn Sacrifice [Edward Zwick, 2015; review in our October 3, 2015 posting] does do a better job with this aspect, immersing its audience more in the strategies of movement on the board, but that film has the advantage of just 2 recurring opponents in its most important scenes plus plenty of intense-emotional-conflict with both of them in situations away from their tournament location in Iceland.)
I can understand the difficulty in trying to not only stay aware of immediate movements from the several pieces that constitute the chess “army” but also attempting to plan several moves ahead in trying to catch a skilled opponent off-guard with maneuvers that must lay hidden even in plain sight. (I never was that good at chess, but I do understand how difficult it is to constantly juggle all that you need be cognizant of, especially in competitive play where you also fight against a clock rather than taking forever to make a move, as was my case years ago when I attempted to play.)
So, yes, Queen of Katwe may fit too easily into the stereotypical-Disney-mode of embraceable-audience-appeal with characters who verge on sainthood much of the time (especially Robert Katende, but in the group interview video noted in the Related Links below Oyelowo notes how true that description is of this self-effacing-man who’s truly living out his religion in service to the almost-lost-children around him), except for the petulant boys who chafe at even the thought of losing a chess match to a girl or the initially-dismissive-attitude that Harriett has toward Robert’s absorption of her children’s time (that she feels should be spent on bringing in vital income for their sustenance) along with her misunderstanding that he’s training them for gambling enterprises (which does seem to be the case with many street-chess-hustlers in cities around the globe—I’ve seen them in action in both New York City and San Francisco), as well as Phiona's brief bout of ego-dancing. However, when your narrative is simply about how an underprivileged girl with an innate skill is able to push herself through rigorous training (mostly of the mind, but even there the required concentration can take its physical toll if you don’t condition your body for such) to master a skill thought to be beyond her uneducated-abilities, it’s quite disingenuous to create additional conflict for a situation that already has enough with the tensions between a child’s desire for self-actualization vs. a mother’s need for help with family preservation, intracultural-prejudice that a slum kid could succeed in an area assumed to be the domain of intellectuals, self-doubt as the child grows into teenage years which are challenging enough just to be accepted as likable by your peers let alone having to defeat world-class-opponents in international chess competitions.
Certainly, Phiona’s story is inspirational enough on its own for millions of every society’s left-behinds, even if just a few of them see enough hope in it to fuel their own long journeys out of rejection, despair, and material deprivation. This film is infused with sincere intentions, subdued-but-impactful-acting, genuine revelations of lives rarely seen in media depictions without the glamorization added in such fare as Slumdog Millionaire (Danny Boyle, 2008), and, most importantly, respect for its characters as they struggle to remain on upward-bound-paths.
If you’d like to further extend what you’re initially exposed to in Queen of Katwe, you might enjoy visiting this website of the Sports Outreach Mission Chess Academy where you can get more information on Phiona and Robert, then if you want to know more about her there's a documentary (41:25) about Phiona where both she and Harriett are interviewed at length (showing one clear fictionalization from the film, that the mother is fluent in English, which she’s not even though it’s the official language of Uganda, but confining all of the characters to just a few statements in their native tongue allows for a minimum of subtitles, certainly a necessary consideration when trying to market a film to an American audience), along with this extensive interview with Nyong’o about her upbringing in Uganda-neighboring-Kenya (her tribe is the Luo people), various aspects concerning this film, and a good many other items about her. To round off my comments on Queen of Katwe (in hopes you might be encouraged to seek it out, as you’ll now find it in a good number of mainstream movie houses) I’ll offer a Musical Metaphor for my warm experience with the film, in this case Alicia Keys’ equally-uplifting, existence-affirming “Back to Life” (from the soundtrack album) at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Dh18R-KUS3g about the need to transcend the limitations of your birth to truly find “life, life, life [… not] settle for being ignored
[… because] if I don’t try, then what was I made for?” Just the song is used with the end credits in the film, but this video version gives you the lyrics along with many still shots from Queen of Katwe to help you get a fuller sense of what transpires in the film. Now, circling back to the start of this review, I also gave you an additional Metaphor about a Westerner such as myself who’s never been to Africa (unlike my adventurous wife, Nina, who went on a UC Berkeley expedition to Kenya in the months just before I met her, lived in the bush for a bit with the Kikuyu people) but is fascinated with learning more about the inner-brilliance of the so-called “dark continent” with insights to be found from other Western folk's explorations such as Paul Simon’s song with lyrics like: “This is the story of how we begin to remember This is the powerful pulsing of love in the vein After the dream of falling and calling your name out These are the roots of rhythm And the roots of rhythm remain.”
These lines from “Under African Skies” don’t relate directly to the Queen of Katwe’s content but they do actively acknowledge the ongoing power of music in giving shape, meaning, and energy to our lives as music’s so essential to the great articulation of human emotions spanning from joy to sorrow, a form of expression that easily goes back to our earliest manifestations of what we now know as humans in central Africa, relatively close to the contemporary regions depicted in this film. And as “we begin to remember […] the powerful pulsing of love in the vein [… we turn again to] the roots of rhythm,” which Nina and I are about to do in grand fashion so there won’t be any reviews at the Two Guys in the Dark site for the next couple of weeks (unless Pat Craig comes out of the mists to offer something, but I think he’d have to send it to me for posting [given that he hasn’t written anything since we began this enterprise over 4 years ago I’ve forgotten whether he has direct access or not, but that’s likely a moot point]) because we’re headed to Indio, CA for the Desert Trip music festival featuring—over 3 nights for the benefit of aging performers and audiences alike—the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, Paul McCartney, Neil Young, Pink Floyd’s Roger Waters, and The Who (central forces among the roots of 1960s-‘70s rock rhythm, indeed). Once we return home, recover from the trip (with some coastal stops in Pismo Beach and Hermosa Beach to offset the heat of the desert, which still is in solid force this time of year), and have our annual 3-night-indulgence in Francis Ford Coppola’s Godfather saga (1972, 1974, 1990) I’ll get back to you with reviews of The Birth of a Nation, The Girl on the Train, and whatever else I might see by then. Until then, I invite you to join Mr. Young to keep on "Rockin' in the Free World" (from his 1989 album Freedom).
Related Links Which You Might Find Interesting:
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Here’s more information about Queen of Katwe:
http://movies.disney.com/queen-of-katwe (a rather slim official site—which took a little digging to find; more details are at the IMDb site at http://www.imdb.com/title/tt4341582/?ref_=nv_sr_2)
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cyeGK1a32XM (12:48 interview with director Mira Nair, composer Alex Heffes, and actors David Oyelowo, Lupita Nyong’o, Madina Nalwanga)
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P.S. Just to show that I haven’t fully flushed Texas out of my system here’s an alternative destination for you, Home in a Texas Bar, with Gary P. Nunn and Jerry Jeff Walker.
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