“In chess, the small one can become the big one. That’s why I like it.”
Mira Nair seemed the perfect director to bring the true story of Phiona Mutesi to the big screen. She started her career with Salaam Bombay!, looking at the lives of children growing up in Mumbai in the late 80s. She lived in Uganda where the story took place. So when she was asked to be a part of it, it was an easy ‘yes’ from her. And luckily, with her clout and background, she was able to convince the producers and Disney, the distributor, that she should film it in the slum of Katwe where the story took place. Join us – Pete Wright and Andy Nelson – as we wrap up our Sports series with Nair’s 2016 fim Queen of Katwe.
Queen of Katwe is a biopic with heart and authenticity.
We both enjoy chess though neither of us are great at it. And we both enjoy films about chess. So why did we both miss this in theatres? Did it seem like a fairly standard biopic? Or like a TV movie? Unfortunately, we weren’t alone as the film didn’t make money at the box office.
But that doesn’t speak to the quality of the film. Yes, it feels like a fairly straightforward biopic, but it feels authentic. That speaks to Nair’s drive to make it as real as possible. Film in the real locations where it took place. Cast non-actors to play the parts. And it works. With only Lupita Nyong’o and David Oyelowo as the stars in the film, it feels like it’s born of this world. And that’s even with Disney working as the guiding force.
Of course it does mean that talk of prostitution is kept vague and to a minimum. Poverty rings true but never feels as raw as it did in Salaam Bombay!. Even an introductory set-up scene from the end of the film sets the world of chess up for us unnecessarily. But do these things affect the story? Only a little. This is a more positive, uplifiting story by nature so to a certain extent, the focus doesn’t hurt it much.
Nair expertly works with her non-actor child stars, notably Madina Nalwanga as the lead playing Phiona, the chess champ. She’s a revelation and brings incredible life to the story. We buy into everything. She deserves to be here and carries the film on her back. The other kids equally carry their roles.
It’s a touching family film that opens the world of Uganda and chess to anyone watching it. We feel these characters’ journeys. In the end, it does feel like a biopic, but it’s a strong one that warms the heart.
We have a great time talking about it on the show so check it out then tune in. The Next Reel – when the movie ends, our conversation begins!
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When the movie ends, our conversation begins.
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