Queen Of Katwe

Queen of Katwe, the new Disney film about a young Ugandan woman who becomes a chess Grand Master, opened in cinemas this week.

I’m not going to say I was sceptical because that would cast me as some sort of Disney hater and nothing could be further from the truth. From Aladdin to Zootropolis I am firmly onboard the Disney magic carpet ride and all the shameless emotional manipulation that entails.

Go on Disney, paint the world in primary colours, couch morality in absolutes of good and evil, I’ll still buy my ticket.

But this time I was extra wary, purely because Queen of Katwe is based on the true story of Phiona Mutesi - an amazing girl who did indeed escape the slums of Katwe by playing chess to an astonishingly high level. I feared the fluffy confection of your average Disney film couldn’t help but collapse under the weight of some of the issues it was being forced to address - abject poverty, gender inequality, access to education…

So how did Queen of Katwe fair?

Do you know what? Pretty well all things considered. Now obviously I’m no expert in the exact context of a Ugandan slum but I was impressed with the issues the film refused to shy away from. I was particularly happy to see the total lack of a great white saviour character - you know, the magic Westerner who sweeps in to rescue everyone at the narrative mid-point? That’s totally absent. Life for Phiona and her family is shown in fairly unflinching (and minimally airbrushed) detail. Even the extent to which some women might have to go in order to protect their families, is addressed, although again the details are suggested rather than shown in any kind of gratuitous detail.

At the end of the day though, Queen of Katwe, is still a Disney film, a fairytale fashioned from a distant reality. It still promises that if you’re exceptional enough, you can escape the world you are born into. We all know that’s not really true - that phenomenal people the world over are challenged to breaking point by their personal circumstances. That poverty is insidious and cruel and needs to be tackled at a systemic level. That for every person who does escape there are thousands of others who are trapped in grinding poverty with no hope of relief.

I was particularly struck by the young actor who plays Phiona, Madina Nalwanga. Plucked from obscurity when the producers of the film saw her in a community dance class in Kampala, I wondered what her life would be like once the red carpets and glitzy film premieres are over?

Queen of Katwe is a well-made film, powerfully performed by its cast. In some ways it is pioneering and well-intentioned, in others it is unhelpful and dangerously minimising of the problems the world faces.

Because we can’t all be chess prodigies. And yet no child deserves to go without food, education and a chance to live life on their own terms.

Our friends at Ethos Media have produced a viewer's guide to go alongside the release of the film. You can check it out here.