On first blush, Queen of Katwe seems pretty conventional. You’ve seen this story before, right? A poor black teenager with few opportunities meets a teacher who helps her see a life beyond her provincial world. On the path toward a breakthrough, she has to overcome all sorts of difficulties. Everyone learns valuable life lessons. Music swells, credits roll, we all go home smiling.
But Queen of Katwe is also the best new movie this weekend.
It’s a crowd pleaser with a lot of potential: It’s shot in English, is full of music and Ugandan culture, boasts two big Hollywood stars (12 Years a Slave’s Lupita Nyong’o and Selma’s David Oyelowo), and has a major studio behind it (Disney). It sidesteps a few of the laziest pitfalls into which movies of this sort often dive, and undermines the tropes of its genre with cheer and panache. Instead of succumbing to the tempting but troubling "white savior" narrative that often pops up in movies of its sort, it sticks to its roots and tells a better story.
That’s not political correctness. That’s just good writing.
Phiona Mutesi’s story is perfect for a movie.
In 2011, journalist Tim Crothers wrote a story for ESPN about Phiona Mutesi, an illiterate 14-year-old girl from a slum called Katwe, located just outside Kampala, the capital of Uganda. Crothers’s article tracked Phiona on an extraordinary journey, headed for the 2010 Chess Olympiad in Siberia (where she was one of the youngest players in the room) en route to her dream to become a grandmaster. The article was nominated for a National Magazine Award and turned into a book, and now the book is a film, directed by Mira Nair (The Namesake), who has lived in Kampala for 27 years.
From the start, the story was almost guaranteed to translate well to the big screen, as it combines two of American moviegoers’ favorite inspirational movie genres: underdog sports stories and tales of teachers and students.
In the movie, Phiona (played by radiant newcomer Madina Nalwanga) first encounters chess by accident. While selling maize to help her widowed mother Harriet (Nyong’o) earn enough to feed the family, Phiona wanders into a chess club for local children started by Robert Katende (Oyelowo), a Christian missionary working with a sports-focused outreach organization. Initially he has them playing soccer. But he discovers that some of the children aren’t allowed to join in because any injury would mean a financial hit to their families — and thus, the chess club is born. Though Phiona is reticent to join in at first, it soon becomes clear she has an extraordinary talent for the game.
You can spot the next plot beats as they crest the horizon: Phiona wins progressively more important matches, encounters difficulty at home, keeps winning, experiences setbacks — you know the drill. It’s familiar for a reason: It’s fun to root for an underdog, and gratifying to think that a champion can come from anywhere.
Sports movies draw on this idea all the time, and one of the triumphs of Queen of Katwe is that it manages to make chess exciting — and comprehensible! — to all viewers. Even those who don’t know their rooks from their pawns will be biting their nails during competitions as young, inexperienced Phiona stares over the chess board at her older and more well-trained opponents.
So there’s the excitement of seeing the long shot go up against the giant, but Queen of Katwe also follows the contours of the "magical teacher" movie, in which some enterprising instructor coaxes a classroom full of students toward the greatness that was always latent in them — think of Dead Poets’ Society, Mona Lisa Smile, or Mr. Holland’s Opus.
Queen of Katwe bucks the "white savior" stereotype
A hefty subset of magical teacher movies cross their stories with the "white savior" trope, resulting in a genre that professor Matthew Hughey succinctly summarized in 2010 in the journal Symbolic Interaction:
"The genre features a group of lower-class, urban, nonwhites (generally black and Latino/a) who struggle through the social order in general, or the educational system specifically. Yet through the sacrifices of a white teacher they are transformed, saved, and redeemed by film’s end."
In movies like Freedom Writers, Half Nelson, and Dangerous Minds, a classroom full of "underprivileged" nonwhite kids have their lives turned around by a white teacher. (Not coincidentally, this same trope also frequently pops up in underdog sports movies like The Blind Side and McFarland, USA.)
Magical teacher movies keep getting made because people are inspired by them — and when they’re good, they’re fun to watch. We can relate to them, because we’ve all been students. Plus, they suggest that each of us sitting out in the audience, given enough grit and ingenuity, could change our own lives and the lives of kids, too.
The problem, though — as most any teacher will tell you — is that movies are short compared with school years. So the work it takes to actually pull off such a transformation gets downplayed or diminished, hinging on a breakthrough moment or two rather than a series of tiny victories.
In 2014, middle school teacher Joshua Macklin wrote in The Atlantic about the lack of realism in the magical teacher genre: Happy endings are guaranteed, kids are the real superheroes, and important issues get simplified or obscured. (You can find a great counterexample in the 2008 French film The Class.)
Layer in the white savior trope, and the pitfalls of the magical teacher genre get even more complex — especially since the films often reinforce stereotypes about laziness, dysfunction, and criminal behavior being inherent to some racial groups. If problems in the education system are difficult to overcome quickly, the added problem of racism makes it even harder to reach a satisfying conclusion in two hours.
Queen of Katwe takes place over not just one school year but several years — something a typical teacher movie can’t do — which means we get a better sense of the long, slow persistence necessary for permanent change. But more importantly, the white savior complex never even rears its head, thanks to the nature of Oyelowo’s character.
One can imagine a version of this movie in which an unimaginative writer swaps out Katende for an idealistic Peace Corps volunteer or Western missionary who wants to save kids in the slums and learns a lesson. But Katende is Ugandan and grew up in the slums himself before managing to earn a university degree in engineering, and that’s core to his work with the children: He knows where they’re coming from, and he’s a living, breathing example of success for them. He’s one of them. That’s why they trust him.
In Queen of Katwe, the teacher isn’t the main character
In any movie about a magical teacher, you can be almost certain of one thing: The teacher thinks she has a lot to teach the kids, but guess what? The real teachers were the students. Twist!
For that to work, the teacher in these movies usually has to be either a flat-out mess (think Half Nelson’s addict teacher, played by Ryan Gosling) or very idealistic (think Freedom Writers’ naive and enthusiastic protagonist, played by Hilary Swank). The teacher needs saving, and the kids are the only one who can save her. And so usually the protagonist of the film is the teacher. The students are supporting characters, there to further the teacher’s journey.
In Queen of Katwe, Katende is idealistic and well-adjusted, faithful to his wife, and concerned for his family’s stability. But the star of the film is Phiona, and her own mother, Harriet, is at least as important to the story as Katende.
Harriet’s struggle to maintain her own integrity while caring for her children and holding the family together in extreme poverty is sharply drawn. She isn’t the antagonist, standing in her children’s way, nor is she a saint. You understand why her oldest daughter wants to escape while also sympathizing with her life. The film doesn’t aestheticize her poverty, and it doesn’t treat it sentimentally, because Harriet doesn’t either.
Phiona also goes through a complicated transformation in the film; when we meet her, she is meek and shy, but as her success grows, so does her ego. Is it worth getting away from poverty if her character is sacrificed? Queen of Katwe knows how complicated this question is, and delivers a complex answer.
Queen of Katwe inspires its audience without flattering them
In a typical inspirational drama based on a true story, onscreen text at the end of the film tells viewers what happened to the main characters. Queen of Katwe takes this one step further, bringing the actual people onto the screen to stand side by side with the actors who played them, and saying where they are today. Many of the extras in the film were also local people without on-camera experience.
That reinforces the story and reminds viewers of something important: This is a Ugandan story, about Ugandan triumphs, with mostly Ugandan actors. Director Nair has been in Kampala for nearly three decades, and it shows in everything from scenes in the marketplace to a careful ear for dialogue and music. (The kids favor a hip-hop song about flavorful chicken and rice.) Phiona’s victories are victories for everyone in Katwe.
This is a story of home.
So while it’s entertaining and engrossing and funny and heartwarming, Queen of Katwe isn’t about most of its target audience. It still has all the elements of a sports or magical teacher movie — valuing hard work and caring and opportunity — but it trusts us to watch it without having a surrogate character in the movie with whom to identify.
Not only is this approach realistic rather than idealistic, it’s also respectful of both its subjects’ stories and of the audience’s capacity to empathize with people who aren’t just like them. Somehow that’s still a radical act in a Hollywood film. But it makes for an honest story — and one worth replicating.
Queen of Katwe open wide in theaters September 30, 2016.