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Film Review: Queen of Katwe

Disney’s done good: finally. In recent years the American fairytale brand has tried appealing to the ‘ethnic audience’ with mediocre movies like Million Dollar Arm about an Indian baseball team and Khoobsurat starring Bollywood fashionista Sonam Kapoor. Animation wise they’ve attempted to ‘get in touch’ with the times by swapping their early formula of stories about white princesses for more diverse representations like Princess Tiana in The Princess and The Frog, but with Queen of Katwe they have nailed it when it comes to making a film that’s fresh, intelligent and family friendly, for all international audiences.

Directed by Mira Nair (whose previous films include Monsoon Wedding and The Namesake), the story is based on the real life account of a Ugandan school girl who becomes a chess champion…yes it may be directed by an Indian filmmaker but this isn’t a film about India. It focuses on life in the slums of Uganda: a positive representation of which until now, has been missing from world cinema.

Characterised by its vibrant, uplifting soundtrack (which deserves recognition in its own right) and with exceptional performances throughout, it’s hard to find any faults with this movie. Aimed at a family audience, children play key roles in the film but while the stereotype of ‘Disney children’ may conjure up irritating show offs, all of the performances in Queen of Katwe are mind-blowingly good and for a film critic that shudders at the thought of watching child actors, there was nothing to fear. Mira’s direction ensured they all came across naturally, as if they weren’t acting at all.

Our lead protagonist Phiona Mutesi (Madina Nalwanga) is a solid, strong, female heroine. Phiona is just the kind of role model that has the power to inspire children away from the shallow world of superficial social media stars and show them that success is actually about strength, determination and passion.

The adult leads are played by David Oyelowo, the chess coach and Lupita Nyong’o, Phiona’s mother and both are flawless in their performances.

Though the plot of Queen of Katwe has a classic underdog, sports theme, where we watch the rise of a character who shouldn’t be any good, become a champion; the film never loses interest because there is such a strong sense of authentic Ugandan culture and spirit throughout. From the score and the costumes to the depictions of village life and city comforts, through to the storytelling, this is filmmaking as it should be.

One aspect that makes this film so special is that it’s an African film about African people and all their successes are down to themselves. There are no foreigners coming to their rescue. We see every day life, where money, work, family and health are issues that matter not just to the characters, but exist universally.

Refreshing, satisfying and positive Queen of Katwe is a film that deserves to be watched, but not just by regular cinemagoers; screenings should take places in schools across the world, where it will speak directly to any child who may feel insecure, to never give up on their dreams.

I watched Queen of Katwe, at the BFI London Film Festival, it's currently showing in UK cinemas.

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