Saturday, November 12, 2016

Queen of Katwe (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway

Queen of Katwe

Director Mira Nair (Monsoon Wedding) gives a queen her due in "Queen of Katwe" an bouyant biopic about Phiona Mutesi, the teen chess champion of Uganda. Mutesi, having lost her father and sister in childhood and raised in poverty by a single mother, overcame near impossible odds. She began to learn chess as a young girl and with a prodigious memory, earned a championship.

Phiona (Madina Nalwanga) aids her mom, Nakku Harriet (Lupita Nyong'o) in selling maize. She likes her home life, but grows increasingly pressured. Phiona is bullied, money is scarce to non-existent and her sister Night (Taryn Kyaze) is known to be going out with whoever has flash. By chance, she spies youngsters playing chess at the Sports Outreach School, a Christian Mission. Phiona wanders in with her brother, Brian (Martin Kabanza).

Her interest is piqued. The kids make fun of her, but the instructor Robert Katande (David Oyelowo) notices her enthusiasm.

Director Nair employs Disney's trademark sweet tone to great effect. Rather than cloying or sugary as some Disney films are, the film is effervescent and bubbly, but never without its pathos. The sister, Night, flirts with the gangster realm but never fully succumbs. The film does not shy away from domestic fireworks, but when it does indulge in drama, it is startlingly authentic.

This film is a true underdog story in the best sense and it is impossible not to cheer. The mere glance at Nalwanga's serious yet cheerful face will have you smiling in an instant. Like Karate Kid's stance and Rocky Balboa's jog, Phiona has a trademark snap after a chess move combined with a dance that is sure to enter cinema history.

The cinematography and editing is so emotionally strong that it floats and leaps upon the eye like music.  The magic is that these very real people are as iconic as any heroes in older classic Disney tales and they are all the more powerful for actually living in this realm.

The best that could be said of "Queen of Katwe" is that it embodies an irrepressibly contagious joy that is possible in life, if we make solid choices along with luck.

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