PG. A lot of that PG comes from the fact that it is a live-action movie and it's impossible to make a G-rated live-action film anymore. But there are some dark things that happen to Phiona. Her sister runs away with a guy and gets pregnant. The movie is always surrounding that living tragedy that is extreme poverty. A character almost dies. There's just a bunch of sinister moments that would justify a PG rating.
DIRECTOR: Mira Nair
Mira Nair directed this? Monsoon Wedding's Mira Nair? Okay, now I have to refocus everything I was going to write about. It was Dad's (my) pick for family movie night. I originally said Apollo 13 and then got shut down for runtime. (Accurate. I won't fight that.) Then we remembered that Catch Me if You Can has sexual parts that might involve some explanation to our kids. So I decided to play Disney+ roulette. I heard that Queen of Katwe was pretty great, so that explains why we're all here today. The thing is...
...I don't like sports movies. I know, chess isn't really a sport. The only thing is, chess is treated exactly like a sport in this movie. The inspirational sports movie doesn't do a ton for me. You can argue with me all day and you would be right. Sport is woven into our culture and our DNA. For many, sports are the way to change the world. In the case of Phiona, it gave her opportunities that she never would have experienced. Everything about the inspirational sports movie I can get behind, but I just don't like them. There's something about sports that drive me crazy. Even though many of these stories are true stories, they all seem to follow a formula. It's the whole Bad News Bears things, only without the comedy. The unexpected savant comes in, is naturally adept for the whole game. With the proper support system, square peg in a round hole grows more and more successful until they are taught the lesson of failure. There's someone out there that is better. There's a crisis of faith. The lesson taught is not to step out of line until someone convinces the protagonist to try again. They work and work and work until they are either able to redeem themselves or learn that winning isn't everything. I find these stories remarkably boring. It's because I don't like sports, but it is also because it keeps being the same movie.
I will take the stance that Queen of Katwe is a step above a lot of the things I watch. Maybe it's because I kinda sorta dig chess. It seems like the hipster thing to say that you consider chess the ultimate sport. But on top of that, if you cut out all of the sportsy sports stuff, there's a pretty good story going on behind the chess. Really, this is the story of being afraid to fail. (I know, a pretty common sports theme.) If I look at this entire experience as a story about poverty and how poverty begets poverty, there's something really interesting in the story. Phiona starts the movie smelly. No one wants her there because she is uncomfortable to be around. Her character is defined by her poverty. Heck, the story probably wouldn't even exist if the chess club wasn't offering porridge as an incentive to play.
Perhaps it is because Phiona had earned the term "Queen of Katwe" that the movie is named the way it is. But Phiona is representative of a culture that is often ignored by society. Phiona is the lowest of the lowest class. The other kids in the chess club are also remarkably poor. It becomes easy to forget that at times in the movie because as little as the other children in the story have, Phiona and her family have less. But Phiona's love for the game is not necessarily one for the beauty of the rules or because of the skill that she has behind it. Chess, for Phiona, is a way to get away from Katwe. She has nothing. I look at Maslow's hierarchy of needs and think about how far away self-esteem is from survival. Phiona and her family are basically trying to survive. She has no real sense of shelter. Her meals are basic. She must work to eat and move ahead. An education, from her perspective, is a luxury. It's not that chess is necessarily a fun game, but it is a means to both food and a luxury.
She comes across as the stereotypical cocky athlete, but there's something bigger going on there. She's so desperate to be the best in the world because her life has been a series of cause and effect. When Phiona showed that she was adept at this game, she received food. When she started beating others, she garnered attention. This attention allowed her to sleep in a real bed. Beating kids who had money showed that she had value. It only makes sense that she would want to be better than anyone she would ever play because going backwards led back to thinking about survival again.
We often see characters like Phiona's mother, Nakku Harriet, in these stories. These are people who find these distractions frivolous. Trust me, I get it. But the character changes don't necessarily happen to the protagonist. Okay, sure. Phiona learns that she just needs to practice and lose her ego to get better. But the story that we should actually care about is the tragedy of Phiona's mother. From her perspective, she lost Night in the first few minutes of the movie. She has sold her soul and her body to this guy for a degree of comfort. Her family falls apart in the first few minutes of the movie. From her perspective, Night is a character who was always rebellious. She was always the threat to the family. Night would perpetuate a degree of poverty from a young age. But Phiona was always her good kid. She was the sure footing that she needed in her life. But when Phiona becomes interested in becoming bigger than her station, that's when rock bottom proves to be nothing of the sort. Phinoa was never supposed to leave. And from Mom's point-of-view, this obsession with a game is similar to what Night has done. In a desperate place to get out, she has done anything to escape this world.
See, from Mom's perspective, leaving Katwe is selling your soul. Her entire life, she's been bred and raised to believe that poor people were meant to be poor. When Mom sees this man come into their sphere of influence, she can't help but compare Robert Katende as the man who took Night away on the motorcycle. The financially better-off male is the devil. He is the temptation. I mean, this is a Disney movie, right? It earned a PG rating and I have already talked about that for a little bit. But I don't think the real mother in this story was worried about a chess game. Phiona ends up living with Mr. Katende. When she spends all of her time with this stranger, is it that bizarre that she might make a sexual connection between these people?
Maybe that's what always bothers me about inspiring biopics. There is always this tendency to over-simplify the narrative to make a clear good guy and a clear bad guy. Mom's never the bad guy, but she's definitely an antagonist. From Phiona's perspective, her goal is to become the best chess player in the world and to become rich doing it. She wants to buy her mom a house. But who is standing in the way of that? Mom's reticence to allow Phiona to leave implies that Mom doesn't want her leaving her station and her caste. But the Night narrative has to color what we are talking about as well. Because Night kind of prostitutes herself, Mom has to be influenced by that narrative. Instead, it kind of does Mom the disservice of implying that "She just doesn't get it" or is too afraid to step out of line. Nah, she's probably worried that Phiona has repeated the mistakes of Night, only with a far more insidious man.
It's weird, some of the choices in the story. While it is heartwarming that Mr. Katende doesn't take the better job, he does have a responsibility to his family. I mean, he's barely getting paid with the mission. But I do really appreciate that this movie didn't try to remove faith from the storytelling elements of the events. I mean, I hear that Tolkien completely divorced God from the story, so seeing everyone praying seemed like a gutsy move for a 21st Century Disney movie.
I don't know if I got to the heart of it all. I got bored for a while because I don't love sports movies. But there's a rich character study going on in the background that Mira Nair didn't really touch on as much as I thought she would. It's a touching story that just isn't for me.
Film is great. It can challenge us. It can entertain us. It can puzzle us. It can awaken us.
Mr. H has watched an upsetting amount of movies. They bring him a level of joy that few things have achieved.