Tuesday 6 December 2016

Queen Of Katwe (2016) - Movie Review

https://redribbonreviewers.wordpress.com/We’ve seen standard marketing when it comes to films with posters and banner ads, traditional marketing with trailers, viral marketing with web videos… this one succeeds at being bizarre without necessarily being obvious about it. This film is based on a true story (because of course it is) but the marketing that we kept getting for it over here wasn’t of the usual Oscar-ready trailer variety. Instead, it seemed to want to bring to attention how much the story itself affected the people involved in the film… and in turn, bringing forward more of the fiction than the reality than most of these real-life drama films end up trying for. I mean, when pretty much every one of these films is a slideshow to try and more closely connect the real events to how the filmmakers depict them, this is a weird way of going about things, especially when the “trailer” detailing all this was shown at a much higher frequency. After the last couple instances concerning history on film, and how expectations are still capable of playing into how a film is received, I’m justifying this tangent of an introduction.

The plot: Phiona (Madina Nalwanga), a girl from the Ugandan slums of Katwe, lives a relatively simple life with her mother Harriet (Lupia Nyong’o), brothers and sisters. However, once local chess teacher Robert (David Oyelowo) introduces her to the sport, and it turns out that she is quite good at it, she may have a chance for a better life. However, between her upbringing and her background, getting her into official chess tournaments may prove difficult. Nonetheless, Phiona and Robert are determined to make this work.

Wow, this cast is astoundingly good. Let’s get the more obvious picks out of the way: Oyelowo has a definite handle on charismatic characters and he fills his mentor role with a tremendous capacity for inspiration and, occasionally, mirth like when he’s entertaining his chess students. Nyong’o, continuing her own streak when it comes to strong maternal figures, gives Harriet a serious feisty quality to the role but never to a point where it feels unnecessarily harsh or nasty; she just seriously cares about her family and, considering the details that didn’t make it into the final product (read: death in the family due to HIV), she has more than enough to be worried. And yet, through the fire, you see a genuine love for her family, and Phiona in particular.

And speaking of Phiona, considering this is Nalwanga’s first acting role, she’s a little stiff but she still manages to give the character a real sense of vibrancy that makes her successes (and tribulations) hit that much harder. The rest of the cast is also full of people with little to no prior acting experience, and while I could make some joke about how you can tell that from their performances, it actually helps sell the realism because it reaches that weird point where documentary “acting” meets indie acting. Seems like that blurring of the line between fiction and reality from the trailer was actually indicative of the final product.

That feeling extends to the production values as well, which might be the most honest I’ve seen in a long while when it comes to these sorts of biopics. Considering we’re talking a part of the world which popular consensus will (however erroneously) perceive as just being an entire continent of poverty, Katwe itself isn’t shown as being particularly dirty, or glamourised for that matter. It’s depicted with the sort of genuine quality that you would expect from a place where people actually live. That’s probably because the film was actually shot in Katwe, with actual residents filling in as extras. Yeah, this seems like a common sense thing, especially considering on-set acting training was the majority of their experience in that area and they all check out from what I can see, but apparently not because… ugh… wow, this is heading into a line of argument that is not going to end well. Alright, to cut a long and winding rant short, this film shows that having a film primarily populated by black people, complete with their actual habitats and not a friggin’ soundstage, is possible if filmmakers are willing to put the effort in. So, it’s less #OscarsSoWhite and more #OscarsSoLazy… yeah, that sounds about right.

Okay, let’s get back into actually talking about the film itself, and since it’s Disney, there’s still plenty to talk about. Now, remember what I said about Zootopia from earlier this year and its rather nuanced take on racism? Well, hopefully not because you’re not going to find that here. Given how we’re not dealing with South Africa here, which means no Afrikaans to be found here (far as I can tell); ergo, racism isn’t exactly the issue of the day here. Instead, it’s classism between those in poverty and the more privileged like those who attend the school hosting a tournament that Phiona competes in. However, regardless of the exact label of prejudice, it’s being shown through the kind of basic and broad stereotypes that feel right at home in Cool Runnings. Okay, admittedly, it’s not quite as prevalent, but what it lacks in quantity, it certainly makes up for in "quality". The scenes where Robert tries to plead his case to the Chess Federation is legitimately cringe-inducing because… wow, the president is a dick. Like, in a way that no-one is to a person’s face.

So, since this is a sports film and the prejudicial elements within are far from nuanced, surely this also follows the usual lack-of-restraint when it comes to sports film tropes. And sure, they are definitely here in abundance: The dead parent as per Disney regulation (possibly legal regulation by this point), the other parent who is at first vehemently against the sport of choice but eventually warms to it, the mentor with a troubled past who gets success vicariously through its pupil(s). However, that is an extremely regressive viewpoint for two key reasons: One, the events depicted are pretty damn close to the actual events in the life of Phiona, and two, this is a lot more thoughtful and genuinely emotional than something like, say, Eddie The Eagle. The story is genuinely quite touching and all the emotions involved feel warranted and within reasonable proportions, both good and bad. Not only that, this film manages to contextualise chess as less of a high-brow game of strategy and more a game that highlights the power of the underdog. Most of Oyelowo’s dialogue involves commenting on the nature of chess, and even when it gets into how it applies to life and how it marks the weakest piece on the board becoming the strongest with enough movement, it never comes across as pretentious.

All in all, there isn’t anything bad that I can say about this. The acting is stellar, if rough around the edges which is excusable considering the people aren’t really pretending all that much, the direction brings the kind of honesty and closeness to reality that amplifies the emotional content, and the writing not only creates good emotional setups which get delivered on, but also makes some very nice statements about their lives in relation to chess that fits perfectly the story. I don’t know what it is about Disney’s live-action output (remake or otherwise), but they are seriously on the rise with no real sign of stopping. I might regret those words once the Beauty & The Beast remake comes out, but for now, I stand by it.

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