Queen of Katwe, Mira Nair's Monalisa

Vaishnavi Sundar
Posted November 5, 2016 from India

When Hollywood teams up with big names, and ventures into making a film on sports genre, the expectations are pretty much met by default. We have all enjoyed “Cool Runnings”, “Million Dollar Arm”, where an unassuming underdog goes on to become a prodigy and leaves us spellbound with a vicarious sense of accomplishment. So how is Disney’s “Queen Of Katwe” directed by Mira Nair any different?

For starters, this is the story of a girl. A girl, Phiona Mutesi. In a manmade world devoid of female idols, this film from Hollywood, an industry known for its lopsided gender representation, couldn’t have come out at a better time. Despite contradictions, such a remarkable story of a woman can only be told by another woman, and I have my reasons for it. Having lived in Uganda for more than 25 years, and made films like “Mississippi Masala”, Mira Nair has lifted the trophy even before the results are announced. She has treated the film with such sensitivity to carefully balance the contribution of the male coach; Robert Katende, by not making it about him, but about Phiona. Nair’s coach urges his “pioneers” to play like a girl! It is the same coach who is so proud of her when she defeats him and concludes he is not enough of a coach to her. Robert Katende is played by the ever so brilliant David Oyelowo, who doesn’t step over Phiona’s achievements in any manner. Nair has gone one step further by giving Robert’s wife, Sara her rightful due and therefore nullifying the possible male savior syndrome of the film. Having said that, there is no “white savior syndrome” in the film either and what a relief it is. I suspect if such intricacies would have been dabbled with, if not for the female gaze. But please go ahead and prove me wrong.

The film forthrightly puts across the rampant classism within races and ethnic groups. No matter where we are, or how “third world” our country is, people find ways to oppress one group or another, based on gender or class or both. This underdog from Katwe had to struggle quite a bit before being taken seriously. And true to the quote at the beginning of the trailer: "The size of your dream must always exceed your current capacity to achieve them", the film stands testimony to the endless dreams one can achieve in their lives, despite barriers. When Phiona wins her first match against a male champion, Godfrey Gali says: “Phiona has a very aggressive plan. She surrounds you until you have nowhere to go and then she will squeeze you like a python until you are dead". This is the most fitting description of her aspiration to become the “champion”. This aspect of raging sportsmanship is addressed very eloquently when the coach gives the children a pep talk before their first match with the “city boys”. The analogy of dogs and cats is a lesson not just for the kids. The exposure to the huge beautifully leveled playgrounds and its impact on the children is perhaps the most powerful shots in the film. When the singing children gasp and are stifled momentarily, sitting in their dilapidated 'ministry of sports' vehicle we see how ripped apart their lives are, from the other side of the slum. But later that night when they are all seen boycotting the cushioned beds and lying on the floor huddled together, we already know who the winner is.

The actor who played Phiona, Madina Nalwanga, who herself grew up in the slum has played her role with a bittersweet elegance. Through this endearing effort at Neorealismo, Madina has played Phiona with a believable performance and stunning attention to details. The slum of Katwe has not been exoticised or antagonized - so the focus is always on Phiona, but with the elements of Katwe attached to it, and not the other way round. When coach Robert asks her "Sometimes the place you're used to, is not the place you belong, you belong where you believe you belong, where is that for you?", I could not help but notice a collective sigh and some teary cheeks. And that is the crucial moment in the film when the hero’s story is passed on for posterity.

Queen of Katwe successfully promulgates another valuable lesson, to women especially, to shoulder failure and not be bogged down by it. A lesson that failure is not an impediment but just a minor setback. It is heartening to see the coach embracing her and asking her to plan better when she loses to the Canadian player, in Russia. For somebody like Phiona, to have gone so far to attend an international championship, confident and certain to become a champion and engage in the lifestyle affiliated to that, failing was not an option. But she picked it up from where she faltered and eventually nurtured the champion’s dream. Even though it is a true story, the responsibility of choosing to pick the right elements to show it to an audience rests in the filmmaker’s hands. And Mira Nair has made the life of Phiona an inspiring story in the truest of sense.

There can be no text written about the Queen of Katwe, without the mention of the exhilarating performance of Lupita Nyong'o. The Academy award winning Kenyan-Mexican actor is a charmer. Be it her convincing local tongue with the occasional “heyyyy” thrown in, or her tailor-made “walk” in the film, she radiates Africa with a proud sincerity. Lupita plays Nakku Harriet, Phiona’s and four other children’s mother (one of whom is dead). Being so young herself and at the cusp of extreme poverty, Harriet pulls the family together with her courage and conviction. A rather beautiful shot where she is about to sell her traditional clothes, so she could let Phiona study through the night, we see that she uses Phiona's trophy to check herself - and that is a masterstroke. Harriet is quite afraid of dreaming big and ending up not being able to live the life that she dreams. In a way, Phiona is her antithesis because it is her dream that pulls her and her whole family out of poverty. Lupita’s performance as Harriet has made Phiona’s success so well deserving and their newfound life so satisfying.

Queen of Katwe is not a story marred by superficial third world despair that directors sometimes get away with, it is a story of a hero from Uganda. A story of a girl, who against all odds stood her ground and gave little girls an idol to look up to. A heartfelt mention to the children who played Benjamin, Ivan, Joseph and Gloria so beautifully, they must be so proud. And like me, if you are a fan of African music, you will catch yourself humming “bring the flavor to the fish, bring the flavor to the rice” for days! Go watch Queen of Katwe soon.

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Originally published on WMF India Blog

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