Queen of Katwe

Queen of Katwe

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In her new film, Queen of Katwe, Mira Nair casts a spell with color. She signals her interest in bright hues from the opening sequence, as three figures pass through the door to Uganda’s National Junior Chess Championship: Wunderkind Phiona Mutesi (Madina Nalwanga), with her tangerine sweater and pebbled headband; her coach, Robert Katende (David Oyelowo), in his neat floral button-down; and the chairwoman of her chess federation, sporting a long, smart dress of hot pink.

Arrayed in a small flying V, the trio becomes an emblem of the film as a whole, in which color is also texture and depth—a form of resistance to the treatment of the global South’s slum dwellers as a teeming, undifferentiated mass. It’s this empathic precision of swatches and shades that distinguishes Queen of Katwe from other inspirational sports movies. No reinvention of the genre, the film is nonetheless a rich and vibrant rendition of it, full of proof that the particulars of life in East Africa reward the keen eye’s attentions.

From the sunny compositions to the exquisite costumes, Nair crafts a remarkable sense of people and place for what is, in essence, a studio crowd-pleaser. As Phiona and her brother, Brian (Martin Kabanza), sell maize to support their widowed mother, Harriet (Lupita Nyong’o), in the Kampala slum of Katwe, the film neither dismisses their hardship nor revels in it, careful to sustain the spiritedness of bricklayers, chapati vendors, and streetwise hawkers alongside its suggestions of indigence and hunger.

As a result, the film emphasizes the enterprising intelligence of its characters: When the siblings stumble into Robert’s chess class, their makeshift boards are thrilling little fillips of invention; later, at home, the turquoise light catching on the bottle caps of their homemade set reflects the same blue-green spectrum of Phiona’s dress, or the checkerboard blanket they play on. The film is so suffused with these lively details—lime-green earrings and high-shouldered gowns—that the palette itself assumes a starring role.

Against the formulaic rhythms of the screenplay, adapted by William Wheeler from Tim Crothers’s account of Phiona’s real-life coming of age, Queen of Katwe’s energetic images become a kind of syncopation, akin to the strains of hip-hop we hear in the shoreline market: “Bring the flavor to the fish, bring the flavor to the rice.” Phiona, it turns out, possesses a preternatural talent for chess, soon able to see eight or nine moves ahead, and under Robert’s tutelage, she and her classmates venture into the wealthier districts of Kampala, to Sudan and thence to Russia, competing in rarefied air.

As far as the film’s structure goes, Queen of Katwe hews close to expectations. The charming Oyelowo spars with the understated Nyong’o as Robert, a dreamer, confronts Harriet, a pragmatist, to win her blessing for Phiona’s training; snobs from more refined schools cast doubt on the hardscrabble team’s abilities. Queen of Katwe is, in the narrative sense, a mere fulfillment of familiar tropes, though it approaches the genre’s conventions with a light, funk-inflected touch. As one of Phiona’s fellow students proclaims before their first big tournament, for instance, the “Richie Riches” are no match for the “Katwe Cool Kats,” and the film evinces similar confidence.

Though the film’s use of chess as a metaphor for life is rather strained (“You must never surrender,” Robert tells Phiona as she topples her king), its perception of chess as a symbol of class divide, and of the resilience displayed by those for whom educational and economic opportunities are scarce, is potent. As Nair contrasts school and soccer uniforms with the Katwe kids’ chaotic bursts of color, or glimpses stern, hard-edged Harriet in breathtaking shades of vermillion and gamboge, the form of the film, if not its plot, points to the possibilities that inhere in defying expectations.

As if to correct the worst commonplaces of Africans’ depiction in the mainstream American cinema, Queen of Katwe focuses not on ceaseless strife or faceless crowds, but on the coexistence of distinct individuals within the collective, whether it be the family, the chess team, or the Kampalan slum. By the time the film returns to that first, forthright sequence, after all, we know that Phiona’s choice of orange is a variation on her mother’s color, and her step forth into the next challenge a variation on her mother’s strength.

Image/Sound

One of the great contributions of digital cinematography over its analog counterpart is its easier balance of skin colors. Sean Bobbitt's cinematography captures the various shades of the actors' skin in all levels of light; night scenes in particular look marvelous in the way fire and artificial light illuminate the actors without washing them out. Additionally, the vibrant hues of clothes and objects pop off the screen without overpowering the other, more subdued color tones that fill the frame. The sound, meanwhile, is well-balanced, with music and the ambient sound of city and village life blended in the side speakers to keep dialogue clear in the front channel.

Extras

Mira Nair provides an informative commentary track that covers various minutiae of the production, from casting locals to play themselves to the challenges of shooting chess in a dramatic fashion. A three-part making-of documentary focuses on the overall production and the input of the adult and child casts. "A Fork, A Spoon & A Knight" is a short from Nair that documents the real Robert Katende, and Nair also provides a music video for Young Cardamon (the director's son) and HAB's featured song "#1 Spice." The disc also comes with a brief interview with Alicia Keys regarding the film's music selection, a lyric video for Keys's "Back to Life," and several deleted scenes.

Overall

Mira Nair’s socially observant chess drama looks spectacular on Disney’s Blu-ray release, which flawlessly retains the film’s rich and integral color palette.

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Sound 4.0 out of 5 4.0 out of 5 4.0 out of 5 4.0 out of 5 4.0 out of 5

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Specifications
  • Blu-ray Disc
  • Dual-Layer Disc
  • Region A
  • Aspect Ratio
  • 2.39:1 Anamorphic Widescreen
  • Dolby Digital Formats
  • English 2.0 Descriptive Audio Surround
  • French 5.1 Surround
  • Spanish 5.1 Surround
  • DTS
  • English 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio Surround
  • Subtitles & Captions
  • English SDH
  • French Subtitles
  • Spanish Subtitles
  • Special Features
  • Commentary by Director Mira Nair
  • "Queen of Katwe: Their Story" Documentary
  • "A Fork, a Spoon & a Knight" Short Film
  • "#1 Spice" Music Video by Young Cardamon & HAB
  • Featurette on the Film's Music with Alicia Keys
  • "Back to Life" Lyric Video
  • Deleted Scenes
  • Buy
    Blu-ray | Soundtrack | Book
    Release Date
    January 31, 2017
    Distributor
    Walt Disney Studios Home Entertainment
    Runtime
    124 min
    Rating
    PG
    Year
    2016
    Director
    Mira Nair
    Screenwriter
    William Wheeler
    Cast
    Madina Nalwanga, David Oyelowo, Lupita Nyong'o, Martin Kabanza, Taryn Kyaze, Ivan Jacobo, Nicolas Levesque, Ronald Ssemaganda, Ethan Nazario Lubega, Nikita Waligwa, Edgar Kanyike, Esther Tebandeke