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The place where you belong

28 October 2016

Stephen Brown sees a chess prodigy’s tale

Exit strategy: Madina Nalwanga as Phiona Mutesi in Queen of Katwe

Exit strategy: Madina Nalwanga as Phiona Mutesi in Queen of Katwe

THE title of the film Queen of Katwe (Cert. PG) refers to Phiona Mutesi (Madina Nalwanga), a young girl living in the slums of Kampala, Uganda. It is the true story of how being taught the game of chess by a church official working in sports outreach changed her life.

David Oyelowo, a committed Christian (Selma, Feature, 6 February 2015) plays Robert Katende, a footballer-turned-missionary, who teaches children such as Phiona chess. The child becomes fascinated by the game, achieving ever greater success in competitions, locally and then on a much wider stage. Fame and exposure to a world that she might hitherto never have known brings, as we would expect, problems as well as material and social rewards.

Together with the empowerment and realisation of her educational potential come struggles of identity. Has she outgrown the family and friends back in Katwe who steadfastly supported her, or can she continue to accommodate them as well as those who now embrace her? It’s an age-old problem for those from underprivileged backgrounds who acquire celebrity status. As Katende points out, “Sometimes the place you’re used to isn’t the place where you belong.”

Queen of Katwe may be based on a true story but, when all is said and done, this is a film made by the Disney Corporation, whose brand image, at least historically, includes many cutesy scenarios. That’s not the entire picture, of course. There are notable exceptions from Bambi onwards. William Wheeler, who has written the screenplay for the Katwe movie, freely acknowledges that Phiona’s experiences need to fit within the commercial imperatives of a Disney film and yet “tell an aspirational story about someone from someplace that is not at all familiar to Western audiences.”

Viewers will have to decide for themselves whether the director Mira Nair (The Reluctant Fundamentalist, Arts, 10 May 2013) has succeeded in meeting these possibly conflicting aims. How much of Katwe’s cruel reality can we bear? Or do we prefer magic?

My own misgivings are not confined to this particular film, which only serves to raise a bigger question about tokenism. Does the fact that a very small number of people transcend their impoverished circumstances collude with a society that reassures itself that because a few do so, everyone else can if only they have the will? As such, Queen of Katwe would fit very neatly into a foundational element of the American Dream, were it not for its likening chess to resetting the pieces.

The game — global and social arrangements — could and should be played differently. Such investigation of the structural issues that create material poverty in the first place can produce hostile reactions, as Archbishop Hélder Câmara observed.

It is, therefore, reassuring to note that Disney has worked with Traidcraft and Christian Aid, two agencies with exemplary records of tackling the causes of poverty as well as supplying relief from it. Together, they are providing community and educational resources to accompany this film. Furthermore, Queen of Katwe comes with a recommendation from the Bishop of Durham.


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