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.