One of the ways we celebrated Pearl's Adoption Day this year was to go see Disney's new Queen of Katwe. I'm just skeptic enough to be concerned when Disney gets hold of history, and we had worried just a smidge that the film might not be true to the Ugandan people and culture. It was still a Disney movie about Uganda, however, and that was enough to draw us all to the theatre.
By the way, we are more than a little irritated that there is only ONE movie theatre in all of Birmingham that is currently featuring Queen of Katwe, and even in that one theatre the viewings were rather limited.
So after we found the one place showing the movie and got fleeced at the ticket counter/concession stand, we moseyed on to the theatre and settled in for the previews. Approximately 30 seconds later we were all looking at each other like Oh, crap. We've gone into the wrong theatre. For that trailer was a rather highly tense and scary preview for some new Halle Berry movie that is all about human trafficking and a little boy getting kidnapped from an amusement park. I mean, what in the actual what?! I was flanked by a very freaked out Sassafras and Pearl, and spent most of that 30 seconds murmuring back and forth to them to close their eyes and just ignore it, it would end soon...almost over...please God let it be over.
After it finally, mercifully ended, Sweet Love stated loudly what everybody in the theatre was thinking: Hey, 'dat was skewwy. The next few were less intense but still not exactly on par with the ratings and target audience for Queen of Katwe so we still wonder if there wasn't some mistake.
Previews aside, Queen of Katwe is a beautiful film. It tells the story of Phiona Mutesi, a very poor girl from the slums of Katwe (outside Kampala, the capital city of Uganda), who becomes a chess champion despite tremendously difficult circumstances. That story of triumph over adversity is a common theme in both modern and classic screenplays, but there are two specific and unique points found within Katwe: one is the painstaking precision in capturing so many of the nuances of the Ugandan culture and the other is the focus on the quiet strength of women in Uganda.
As early in as the opening frame, Queen of Katwe felt and sounded exactly like the Uganda within which we have spent so much time. The markets, the red clay, the boda bodas, the wooden and metal shanties, the pop-up stalls, the street vendors, the achingly familiar dialect and vocal inflections of the actors, even the cups and bowls from which the children bathe as well as take their meals. The jackfruit, Lake Victoria, whole fried fish, chapati cooking on a rusty grease table, one government official promising to get back to one of the characters "right away," which actually meant 2-3 years later, the way the women cluck and hum in expression, the way they say "clothes" (clo-thez) and "died" (di-ehd)... It is all just so...Uganda. And I loved how authentic the movie was in that regard.
I also value how much Queen of Katwe takes the viewer into every part of Ugandan culture for women, including the normality within which a woman loses her husband, home, and even children. That's a tragedy, but in many parts of Uganda (Katwe included), tragedy isn't really anything all that special. Tragedy is just a regular Tuesday for many Ugandans.
This film also refuses to shy away from the escapism that tempts many women into following what often turns out to be a path that perpetuates their situational poverty and continues the cycle for their children. Lupita Nyong'o, who plays the role of Phiona's mother, does so masterfully and with spot-on perfection to communicating the ongoing plight of many mothers in Uganda who work unbelievably hard to feed their children and retain their integrity. Almost every scene with Lupita felt intense in some way, and every scene that brought me to tears was hers. I have met these women - the moms of kids like Phiona. I've met them in a Ugandan prison. I've met them in orphanages. And in guest houses and hotels. I've met them in remote villages and within government houses and church services. I've met them in hospitals. Women like Phiona's mother are many, and I loved that Disney allowed such a refreshingly honest look at strong females - although the fact that the movie was directed by a strong female likely plays the biggest part in that - without sugarcoating the difficulty of their life.
There are several other details I am eager to cover but for the sake of being concise, I'll end with this: One of the most right things Disney took in Queen of Katwe was to cast so many Ugandan actors. Their natural talent and easy replication of reality for Phiona and her family/friends is the pixie dust that made this movie work.
As for Pearl? She loved Queen of Katwe, though it did dredge up all kinds of Big Feelings for her. She needed some cuddle time after we got home and wanted to talk about the two most intense scenes in the movie as well as how she felt about seeing and hearing some very real parts of this special nation. It's another tool she can use to relate to her story, and if for no other reason, for that we are eternally grateful that Disney did such a thorough job on this film
For more information about Queen of Katwe, check out these resources: