My friends and I were both excited and a little apprehensive to see the movie Queen of Katwe. We wanted desperately for it to be good, to portray African life fairly, to be the perfect response to the trending #OscarsSoWhite hashtag from earlier this year. The movie exceeded all our hopes. The book of the same name by Tim Crothers, served as the inspiration for this Disney/ ESPN film. The true story follows a girl named Phiona Mutesi (Madina Nalwanga) from Katwe, a slum of Kampala, who becomes an international chess prodigy under the mentorship of the missionary Robert Katende (David Oyelowo). The ‘success against-all-odds’ nature of the plot generates a sense of universality and makes the audience forget that a Disney movie aimed at American families about urban Africa is actually a radical concept.
It was especially refreshing to notice that there was not one white character with more than a word or two of dialogue. This should not be surprising considering the setting of the film, and yet it is when one also notes the many other films associated with Africa that consist of a white cast, no matter the setting. I appreciated the casting of Lupita Nyong’o as Phiona’s complicated and incredibly strong mother Nakku Harriet, and David Oyelowo as Robert Katende because they provided the necessary element of stardom, but both actually have immediate connections to Africa. Nyong’o and Oyelowo’s magical performances also enhanced the less experienced, but by no means unimpressive, acting of Nalwanga. The film exemplifies the vast talent Africa has to offer the movie industry, if only given the chance.
The majority of the film was actually shot in Katwe, with a few scenes in Johannesburg, South Africa and all of the featured extras were Ugandans from the area. As a result, one of my friends, who has spent a significant amount of time in Uganda, said that the depiction of Ugandan life was “satisfyingly accurate.” As the New York Times put it, the film “refuse[s] to turn African life into a pageant of grimness and deprivation.” Queen of Katwe does not idealize an unrealistic representation of Ugandan life, nor does it pessimistically condemn their conditions. The film is radical because it so unassumingly pretends not to be – it is an earnest attempt to normalize films about Africa and films without any white actors. I commend that attempt and hope that Hollywood continues this trend, making films like Queen of Katwe common enough to feel normal and no longer seem like a drastic statement. I should hope that there will be less of a need to spread the hashtag #OscarsSoWhite next year.