The Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) draws a unique crowd, the intersection of both entertainment industry-ites and average moviegoers. This blend makes it the perfect place to launch a seemingly plain studio film, which is exactly what Walt Disney Studios did with Queen of Katwe this year. The film, directed by Indian-American Mira Nair, follows Phiona Mutesi (played by the incredible Madina Nalwanga in her first feature film) — a young girl from the Ugandan slums who develops into a chess whiz.
The child sports prodigy story isn’t anything new for Disney (who produces the film alongside Walt Disney Co.’s own ESPN Films) but the female-focused narrative attracts more than the typical male sports enthusiast. Lupita Nyong’o plays Mutesi’s mother in her first live feature role since she won an Oscar for 12 Years a Slave. Nyong’o’s nuanced characterization of a mother regretful of her own decisions and hopeful for her children warrants a film in itself. In fact, one of the film’s few faults is that it does not devote enough screen time to Nyong’o’s luminous presence. She shines in intense yet subtle moments, like when Mutesi departs her native Uganda for chess tournaments and decides to move into the home of her chess coach. While Nyong’o — at first thought — may seem too young to take on the role of a defensive mother, her warmth towards young actress Nalwanga energizes the latter’s performance.
Nalwanga offers a powerful debut in her performance as a chess prodigy. Alongside stars like Nyong’o and David Oyelewo (Selma), it would be easy for Nalwanga’s acting chops to get drowned out. But Mair’s directing puts Nalwanga at the focus and gives her the opportunity to truly lead the better-established actors in the film. Oyelewo and Nyong’o’s performances, as the chess coach and mother, respectively, could have felt contrived or forced. Yet Nalwanga’s wise decision to portray Mutesi as a charming girl in over her head makes Oyelewo and Nyong’o’s characterizations seem genuine. Just like Mutesi discovers fame in Katwe, Nalwanga’s role in the film will likely bring her acclaim in Hollywood. Queen of Katwe’s entire ensemble is notable, especially the hoards of young children who remain poised under the pressure to perform.
The fact that the film was made is, in itself, a mighty achievement for a major Hollywood studio like Disney. The entire film takes place outside of North America and other than a brief segment taking place at a Russian chess tournament, it is set (and was entirely shot!) on the African continent. After a tumultuous year for diversity in the film industry, the film’s cast and creative team, comprised almost entirely of people of color, give hope that the studio system can actually create compelling films about a non-white experience.
Indeed, everything from the costuming to the film’s music is uniquely Ugandan. The score and soundtrack bring life to even the smallest moments of Queen of Katwe, giving Ugandan artists like Young Cardamom and HAB a chance to shine and break into the studio scene. The pop-inspired score provides the necessary boost to carry the lackluster beginning into the more dynamic plot when Mutesi first takes up chess. Mair’s effort to ensure that the film acknowledges and gives back to its Ugandan roots gives me hope that she will find another film at a major Hollywood studio to continue to bring her tasteful directing to audiences across the country.
Hopefully the film finds box office success and gains buzz after its world premiere at TIFF. While Disney indeed went all in to create an authentic film based on Mutesi’s true-life story, it doesn’t seem far-fetched that a film like it won’t be made again by a major Hollywood studio unless it finds an audience willing to cash in at movie theaters. Regardless of how the film does in terms of success, Nair created a film that is perhaps not what the studios want, but truly what the studios need.
The Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) is one of the world’s leading film festivals and one of three major fall film festivals that helps kick off the release of many awards contenders. TIFF has premiered critical darlings like Room (2015) and 12 Years a Slave (2013) — and the festival this year is looking to screen several contenders this awards season including La La Land, Moonlight, and more. Grant Torre ’17 is on the ground in Toronto this year reviewing some of the most prominent films and hidden gems of the festival.
Featured Image Courtesy of ohmy.disney.com