This article appears in our 2017 Winter issue, Chaos. Subscribe today!
Disney rarely challenges traditional representations of race and gender, but it does so in the remarkable Queen of Katwe. Based on a biographical sports essay published in ESPN The Magazine, which later became a book, this feel-good movie deserves applause.
Phiona Mutesi (Madina Nalwanga), a girl from a slum in Katwe, Uganda, hustles to support her widowed mother (Lupita Nyong’o) and siblings by finding food and maintaining shelter. She walks miles to fetch fresh water daily and sells maize in the streets. One day, she follows her brother to a dilapidated church, and she finds a refuge where kids are given daily servings of porridge—and chess. Once she learns the game, she can see eight moves ahead. Robert Katende (David Oyelowo), who the kids call Coach, quickly realizes she’s a prodigy. Over the next five years, Phiona attempts to achieve grandmaster status while still navigating the struggles of her daily life.
Unlike most Disney and other Western films set in Africa and focused on Black people, this film doesn’t employ lazy, racist, heteronormative tropes. There is no white savior. The only white folks onscreen are Phiona’s competitors in a tournament in Russia—and they don’t have speaking roles. There are no wild animals, no wide-open landscapes. Phiona doesn’t get distracted by boys or beauty. In fact, when she wins her first competition, a female commissioner gives her a trophy and announces, “Such aggressiveness in a girl is quite a treasure.”
The script even undercuts its own underdog sports metaphors. Coach repeatedly tells Phiona that as long as she thinks, makes a plan, and executes it, she’ll be fine. Years later, after a flood carries away all of her family’s belongings, she says, “I made a plan against the rains, Coach, but the water didn’t care.” She then explains that her older sister has gotten pregnant by a man who courted and then dumped her. “Soon, the men will come for me,” Phiona states plainly. It’s remarkable to see a young woman—especially in a family film—name the environmental issues, poverty, sexism, and sexual violence she faces.
The film leaves out the fact that Phiona’s father died of AIDS and that she and her mother have never been tested for fear that they, too, are hiv-positive. Since 7 percent of Uganda’s adult population is HIV-positive, the film would have benefited from tackling this topic.
Despite this, Queen of Katwe is still a bright addition to Disney’s roster. As audiences and actors demand more complex roles for people of color, let’s hope we see more groundbreaking projects like this one.