The linkage of the Disney empire with the rise of a chess champion in Uganda in Queen of Katwe might at first seem as unlikely as the marriage of Winnie the Pooh to the Little Mermaid. But such unions are craved by Hollywood, which is under fire for its lack of female characters and absence of "diversity".
The inner tale of how the movie was signed off would make a fascinating screenplay.
Key players appear to have been Oscar- winning Lupita Nyong’o (12 Years a Slave) and Oscar-nominated Mira Nair who were offered a film that allows the Disneyesque framework of the sporting underdog triumphing through will and stamina – but not in an entirely African context. Expect complaints that the Africa in Queen of Katwe is portrayed not as a wildlife sanctuary but as a confusion of corruption, theft, gangsterism, disease, failure and unceasing labour to survive.
Disney likes to think big — so for it to risk assets on what in world terms is a minute film (neither superhero nor CGI driven) is brave. It works by a vast array of family and community entanglements; yet it’s wholesome (as it must be, given the brand).
The plot is simple. A young girl raised in Katwe (one of Kampala’s worst slums) unceasingly looks for a way out. She is a real person, Phiona Mutesi, who learnt the game and achieved the honour of being declared a woman candidate master at several international chess Olympiads. She will, one senses, become a grandmaster, up there with those minds who can see 20 moves ahead. She is still a child, her tale initially told by a sports magazine.
Madina Nalwanga, as Mutesi, is the real star. Whether her character is fictionalised or not, she dominates the screen — even eclipsing Nyong’o and David Oyelowo, who are professionals.
Mutesi’s lot is to leave school (where she excels) and tramp the Katwe market seeking to sell produce to provide food for the family (her father is recorded as having died of an Aids-related illness and one sister dies onscreen; this is not middle America).
All around her Ugandans flock (they helped make the movie) so that we have a general portrait of shack-lands. Maurice Kirya and Ntare Mwine have minor roles.
Her rescuer is Robert (Oyelowo), who trains schoolchildren in soccer and chess. The embittered mother (Nyong’o) does not approve. But Mutesi — having been taught the elements of this ancient and excruciatingly cruel game — learns ever more, achieving the kind of grasp that enables her to understand the need to plan and strike, symbols of her inner state.
Her journeys outside Uganda to participate in Olympiads reveal an entirely new world to her — which I find a little iffy, as she has been yearning to escape since early childhood, and the vistas, some seen from the windows of airliners, reiterate the backward Africa of Tarzan movies. But the brilliant photography of Sean Bobbitt lends an unearthly luminousness to almost every scene. We, too, feel we are flying high for the first time.
Notably, several SA films are on simultaneous release. An Afrikaans drama set in the 1960s, Noem my Skollie, has achieved most critical notice. It, too, is mandated on an outsider who redeems himself (by learning to write). It appears to have a redemptive climax. Few serious films break that tradition.