Movie Review: “The Queen of Katwe”

Disney’s name may be on the film, but “The Queen of Katwe” is anything but a run-of-the mill (but always enjoyable) family movie. Nor is it yet another chess film à la “Searching for Bobby Fischer,” “Pawn Sacrifice,” or the French gem “Queen to Play.” What makes “The Queen of Katwe” refreshingly unique is its distinctly non-Western, developing world sensibility. Thanks to Indian director Mira Nair, Western audiences can see a true, intimate portrait of slum life and Third World poverty, as well as the internal conflicts that occur in so much of the developing world. Here is a reading of the film that is more anthropological and explains certain cultural facets of life in a developing country.

First, Nair shows us the absolute squalor and destitute poverty of slum life in Kampala, Uganda, warts and all. Ironically, Nair already had a house there before getting asked to direct the film, so she was familiar with the culture. No detail is spared, from a dirty floor to peeling paint on the wall to litter on the ground. Poverty manifests itself in details, as anyone who has spent time in a developing country (such as India) can attest. Less wealthy countries may not have the “polish” in their construction or materials or goods as they do in the West and other developed countries. A lack of proper facilities, proper sanitation, and even clean water are daily concerns. Phiona is teased by children the first time she goes to play chess because she is smelly and unwashed. This also is a telling incident, for we first see the differences in class even in a developing country– something that Westerners often fail to recognize or be aware of. Class differences are a global phenomenon.

Food is scarce, and Phiona’s family takes turns sacrificing their portions to whoever needs it most. Their mother Harriet is widowed, and she has very little money, which in turn affects how much they can have to eat. However, more than money, integrity matters most: Phiona’s sister Night is a “kept woman” of a questionable wealthier man with a motorbike, of whom their mother strongly disapproves. The money Night is able to bring her family is dirty money, and it is only with great reluctance and in the direst of circumstances that the family takes it. This is a very telling scene, for it shows that human dignity is priceless, even among the poorest of the poor.

Issues of child labor also show a fresh perspective on the difficulty of overcoming obstacles, because this is no mere story of a suburban schoolgirl up against an extracurricular bully. Phiona and her brother Brian are too poor to go to school; instead, their mother puts them to the streets to sell corn (maize). Thus in addition to being poor and completely unfamiliar with the sophistication of chess, Phiona is also illiterate. Even in her preteens, she is barely able to read. Her mother is extremely suspicious of her interest in chess, and expresses her concern to their coach and mentor Robert, for it is taking her away from the necessary work to bring in income to their family. Later, Phiona’s eagerness to learn to read and study is alienating to her mother, who cannot understand what education means, as she is an illiterate woman from a village. These sorts of in-family class differences that arise when someone becomes more educated than their parents or siblings are another issue that many intelligent and/or talented people from developing countries face. Later on in their lives, the exodus of such individuals to countries with more opportunities gets dubbed “brain drain,” as they deplete a nation of the very people who would better it.

Corruption is also neatly folded into the story, for coach Robert has applied for a suitable job to make use of his engineering degree, but his lack of family connections (due to being an orphan) hinders his progress. Same for when he goes to the head of the chess organization to get a chance for his children in the slum of Katwe to compete, and is turned down because he cannot possibly come up with the exorbitantly high sum required to participate. The head is shocked when Robert does indeed deliver, for he has received his bribe.

Finally, one important point to mention is the presence of colonial education in a developing country. Uganda was a colony of Great Britain, and we can see the presence of the elite British style of education when the children go to the chess tournament at a college. But conversely, we also see the presence of missionary education for the poor people, as Phiona’s chess club is at a center founded by missionaries. This raises questions too complex to explore here; however, the film does a good job in hinting at its underlying presence.

Nair’s respectful direction lets the actors carry the story, without an excess of dialogue. Screenwriter William Wheeler was careful not to moralize, but to let the characters speak what is necessary, and then show through action what we need to see and feel. The extreme close-ups, which can be very distracting in some films, work well here, putting us right at the heart of the story and the characters’ lives.

If a Disney film is supposed to teach kids about good values, educate them, entertain them, and open their eyes to new ideas, then “The Queen of Katwe” succeeds hugely. It is a new, global form of Disney magic for the younger generation.

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Do We Need Silicon Valley Anymore?

Once upon a time, there was a beautiful place between a blue bay and a big, cold magnificent ocean. There were lots of trees and mountains, and before the white man converted or killed them off, lots of Native Americans. Over time, this beautiful place was settled, and a robber baron who made his fortune in railroads built a university with striking Italian-Spanish architecture in honor of his only son who died as a teenager. The climate was such that brilliant innovative scientists were able to build and create various technologies, such as silicon chips, which were used inside amazing new devices. There were two guys who built a company in a garage, and then a company that hyphenated their last names together. Then later, two guys named Steve radically created a computer that would become a household name, called after a common fruit. One of the Steves even took it further, and, along with a team of brilliant innovative scientists, created devices that people could use to listen to music wherever they wanted, telephones that allowed people to do more than talk, and invented screens that would respond to you at the mere touch of a finger. There were programs on these computers that allowed you to search for any information in the world without having to set foot in the library. And there were still more people who invented, designed, created, and innovated all kinds of tools that human beings used to change their lives. It made the place between the blue bay and the big, cold magnificent ocean attractive to all kinds of interesting people from all over the world.

And then what happened?

I would argue that Silicon Valley’s social capital or utility can be represented by a diminishing returns curve. With the heyday of hardware and even beginning stages of software, Silicon Valley was at the peak of the curve. But now, are there are more social problems and negative impacts on society than benefits?

The San Francisco area has always been prone to earthquakes, as well as a “gold rush” get rich quick mentality. The area is also, on a positive note, one of the most open-minded places in the world. It has been a haven for people of all shapes and sizes and beliefs. No matter who you are, you can be yourself there. If you have new ideas and are forward thinking, you are especially welcome: this is quite novel, when you think about how stodgy and traditional other parts of the country – and the world — can be. Nature is everywhere, from magnificent redwoods to open hills to water on all sides. And when so much of United States suffers from extreme climates, a place with year-round temperate weather is a welcome haven. Of course such an area would be in demand!

But over the past two decades, there has been a shift from hardware and physical goods produced to software and non-tangible technologies, such as websites and apps. Social media is the name of the game. As an anthropologist by undergraduate training, I can comment that the impact of this shift in technology seems to be not extremely socially useful. Yes, governments and businesses use Facebook. Yes, Twitter was instrumental in the Arab Spring. Social media can potentially unite people, enabling a grandparent in India to see their grandchild on FaceTime, or a long-lost friend to be found after half a century. We all want more ease in our lives, and apps can certainly do that. But we must ask ourselves, what is the social value of this software or social media? How much of it is truly life- saving or life-changing? Is Instagram really there to change our lives? Do we really need an app to tell us where to eat, what to wear, which way to swipe if someone is “hot,” where to get the best price on that frivolous knick-knack we want but don’t need? What is the purpose of “social media” anyhow, when really we should be spending time communicating with each other directly?

Consider the following. The sharp rise in the IT industry has driven up the cost of real estate, driving out residents who have lived in their homes for decades, or working poor or immigrants from their apartments (by the evil Trion Properties private equity firm), as was reported recently in The Guardian https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2016/sep/21/silicon-valley-eviction-facebook-trion-properties
Gentrification has made San Francisco unaffordable, and rent control seems to be a thing of the past. San Francisco has almost become the most expensive city in the U.S. (just closely behind New York).

Diversity is also lessening, both ethnically and economically, as only the elite professionals (often white and middle- or upper-middle class, from Ivy League schools or at least well-educated) can afford to buy or even rent property. With such an imbalance in careers, those who work in other fields, such as education and the arts, whose services are crucial to society (such as the children of these IT people) flee the area. There is also a gender imbalance, leading San Jose to be dubbed “Man Jose” due to the high proportion of men there. But this goes beyond mere physical gender: this is an imbalance of masculine energy and traits, and that which is uniquely or traditionally feminine (be it careers or personality qualities) is diminished. The high rollers in Silicon Valley are not social workers or ballet dancers, and women who want to succeed need to play like a man. Recall Marissa Mayer’s telecommuting ban at Yahoo. This is no surprise when a female CEO is very cold and masculine (I have it on inside authority).

There is also the lesser-important issue of how the tech industry has effected language change. Text English is its own dialect, and auto correct has all but eliminated the need for young people to learn proper grammar and spelling. Do people know how to use your vs. you’re? Everything is reduced to an abbreviation, a single syllable, a precious, clever spelling change (lift with a y for a ride service). Have any of these techno-geeks studied philology? Linguistics? Their sense of history seems to be in years, not even decades and certainly not centuries or millennia. And let’s not even get into how children’s cognitive development is going to be affected a decade later.

What we have here is a population of people that is social and morally underdeveloped with too much money, no history, no ethics or taste. They lack the sense of psychosocial development that comes with learning slowly and with understanding society and culture and history, how to handle money, and how to deal with people. How laughable was Mark Zuckerberg’s 2015 declaration on his Facebook page that: “My challenge for 2015 is to read a new book every other week — with an emphasis on learning about different cultures, beliefs, histories and technologies.” Apparently, his Harvard education had been wasted until then. If this is the type of citizens top universities are churning out – shortsighted, tech-focused, money-grubbing students – maybe it’s time for them to reevaluate. One retired Stanford professor told me “Silicon Valley is like a cancer on Stanford.” Or conversely, Stanford has become the handmaiden of Silicon Valley.

There is nothing wrong with technology and innovation. We are all on the social media grid, so to speak, all use our smartphones and rely on our computers. The problem comes if there is an imbalance, and if the traditional elements of education are cut, and when people become greedy and exploit, however unknowingly, others. Oddly, there was huge support for Bernie Sanders when he was seeking the nomination for Democratic Candidate for President. This is all good and well, but these people need to be personally fighting for justice for the underprivileged in Silicon Valley and the Bay Area, not allowing rents to be raised exorbitantly and traditions to be destroyed. In other words, they need to be equally concerned with creating social capital and solving social problems. Unfortunately, there is no app for that.