Queen of Katwe, despite its wondrous narrative, based on true events, and spot on acting is a bit of a puzzle. The film is not so much a chess puzzle (as the game is the movie’s modus operandi) but a quietly misleading testament to social culture and to chess itself. By no means am I trying to minimize the exaltation of another ‘against all odds’ genre in life, or in cinema. But the problem with cinema ‘based on a true story’ is that we really don’t know how true the representation of that story is. One must wonder: To what extent do we get to reflect very deeply on the larger context of social-economic asymmetry...especially in a Disney production?
Of course we are thrilled that Phiona Mutesi eclipses the slums of Kampala to win the Uganda National Chess Championship. We are also easily transfixed by the beauty and dynamism of the performances that brings the story to life. Unfortunately, some of the leads in this production look more like they have just been flown in from Beverly Hills than to have grown up and suffered through one of the most impoverished and corrupt countries in Africa, if not the world.
The morning after seeing this compelling movie I paid a visit to my local super-market, recently built and flush with aisles filled to the brim with food and goods that would probably supply the material needs of Katwe for at least a year. The suggestions of the bare bones existence of this village were still flashing through my perceptual field as I loaded my shopping cart with the weeks necessities. I couldn't help but note the counterpoint to our relatively ease of life to the abject poverty and hardship in this village, and how the 'overcome diversity' genre is the rare occasion when the intrinsic values of persistence and courage work together toward a synergistic blast of success and triumph. Phiona Mutesi’s victory earned her the National Championship in a country where survival involves a good bit beyond shopping, and where chess is probably the last thing we Westerners could imagine becoming an iconic symbol of power.
Indeed, her achievement enabled a homeless, poverty-torn family to make a move into higher society and acquire the security of a roof over their heads. Although this makes for a feel-good film, it is the larger reality of poverty, disease and the whole kit and kiboodle of misery that defines the lives around her. However, (no surprise here) you’d never know it from the wondrous energy and optimism of Phiona’s Ugandan village suggested in this Disney production.
So we have here another movie in the transcendence genre, not unlike ‘Stand and Deliver,’ 'The Shawshank Redemption,' and many more. But any holistic view of these success stories will inevitably bring up the unsettling sense of a demarcation line between the Pollyanna dynamics of the silver screen and the wretched worlds that these heroes have moved beyond. It may take a day or two after the joy and jubilation of victory for the viewer to grasp the dichotomy, but it’s vital that we do so, and appreciate the totality behind the history that Hollywood allows a peek into every once and a while.
It is also worth noting how the film venerates the game of chess. Again, the same principle of ‘winner take all’ applies. But in chess the stakes are higher, as it is not a game in the true sense of it. Games imply at least a modicum of chance. In scrabble your luck is determined by the tiles you draw, In sports it is a bad bounce, or a wind blown ball that can bring on defeat. But in chess, you are responsible for every move you make. Chess is not a game, it is a war. Losing, especially at tournament levels, can be devastating.
One of the most effective parts of ‘Queen of Katwe’ is the camera work elucidating the superbly suppressed expressions of the players. Whether it is an assumed sense of superiority or the consternation of imminent defeat, the countenanced grins and grimaces are perfectly articulated by cinematographer Sean Babbit, and the ensemble of players. This aspect of Queen of Katwe is as telling as any other in the pastiche of life in this forlorn, easily forgotten world. It is interesting how chess comes to define a sense of survival in the community and perhaps the country at large. Always looking out for traps and opportunities does delineate much of what life is about. But like life, chess can be merciless.
As the war that chess is, and always was, I wonder if it simply recapitulates our schemes of conflict. In its upper echelons of competition, chess can be life-changing. But its point...its whole point is... to kill.... crush your opponents defenses until you penetrate deep enough to destroy the king, and the ego of your opponent. Phiona Mutesi certainly learned to do just that and became a heroine in a significantly illiterate and culturally challenged environment.
Perhaps it is the resonance of combat as an inevitable archetype that continues to keep the social-political and economic balances in this world so out of whack. Clearly, we need a new paradigm to describe our intentions and expectations. Let's take the bishops, rooks, kings, queens and their pawns off the board, once and for all and recreate the meme of war and glory into a utopian playing field... where our raison d'etre becomes the greatest good for the greatest many. We may never get there, but the casualty rate will surely be less devastating.