Queen of Katwe, Africa and Stereotypes
It is rare to see a movie where every main character gives a stellar performance. It is even rarer when that movie narrates an African story without falling trap to the many long held stereotypes often attributed to the continent. Yes the movie is centered on poverty. But it is depicted through the eyes of the African protagonists: you see joy, innocence, happiness and love in the midst of poverty. You also see something else: Dignity; the ubiquitous dignity of the African woman. These are truths that are almost always erased by the Western narrative on Africa. African urban style is also highlighted, albeit briefly in the ending soundtrack. Viewers will enjoy snapshots of the African Print fashion which has become very trending in recent years, gracing the catalogues of many labels, from newcomer hip brands such as ISONAH to high end designers such as Christian Louboutin
Regrettably, Queen of Katwe falls short of showcasing a holistic picture of the African urban life (it is essentially confined to the slums of Katwe), and for a movie poised for a global audience, this is a notable omission in that it perpetuates the ignorant imagination of an Africa that lacks modern amenities. But the movie does justice to the characters whose lives it narrates. It is adapted from a book of American author Time Tim Crothers which chronicles the improbable true story of 10-year-old Phiona Mutesi (Madina Nalwanga) who lives in the slums of Katwe in Kapamla, Uganda with her mother Nakku Harriet (Lupita Nyong’o) and siblings. Phiona’s life changes when she meets Robert Katende (David Oyelowo) who runs a youth chess program in Katwe and coaches her to become a national champion and hero. It is often the case in African societies that a child who succeeds takes her entire family along on the path to prosperity and Phiona does not deviate from this African virtue of Ubuntu: I am because we all are.
Queen of Katwe hits an important mark in that it crystallizes the emergence of the African movie stars and their importance to the African narrative. Few people will dispute the fact that Lupita Nyongo’o and David Olowo have become household names in Hollywood. These Africans of the diaspora elevate the movie not only with their stature but perhaps more importantly with their authenticity: at last, the African accent is not butchered, the mannerism and idiosyncrasies of the characters are natural and free flowing. For the tutored eye on Africa, this makes for a wonderful feast that will resurrect your own experiences of the continent.
Those of us keen observers of cultural and social dynamics will leave the movie theater with a sense of appreciation for the writers, producers and directors who brought this movie to life. When it comes to Africa, the blueprint has always been for production houses to layer their own imagination of what they think will sell. The producers of Queen of Katwe seem to have resisted taking this default position, choosing instead to respect the integrity of the story.
It takes courage to let an African tale stand on its own merit. For example portraying a mother who is poor yet dignified as opposed to the stereotypical one who is poor and a beggar. My experience has taught me that this unfettered storytelling only occurs when the decision makers involved have more than a superficial understanding and appreciation of the continent. After watching the movie, I was eager to find out more about the team behind it and it did not come as a surprise that the film’s director Mira Nair and producer Tendo Nagenda both have roots in Uganda. Ms. Nair is the acclaimed director of The Namesake while Mr. Nagenda is the Disney executive behind hits such as Cinderella.
The emergence of acclaimed African movie stars and producers gives us reasons to hope for a future where the African story will move away from poverty altogether and embrace the energetic vibrant Africa that we known.