Queen of Katwe does what a Disney film does best. It steals hearts and even allows for a few tears. This movie brings forth applause from its commitment to diversity and telling the true story of an underprivileged Ugandan girl turn chess master.
This commitment to truth, however is the movie’s downfall.
This two and a half hour behemoth relentlessly tugs at the heart strings. If it’s not the general hardness of the protagonist, Phiona’s, life it’s a motorcycle accident. If not that, it’s unanesthetized surgery. It may also be illiteracy or teenage pregnancy.
Not sad enough?
How about some flooding or a heartbreaking loss followed by an emotional meltdown in Russia. These plot points and a sea of others explicitly establish a reality: life in a slum is not a good time.
In the midst of this drama a great deal of characterization is lost. Every trait of Phiona’s is explicitly stated in the movie, and with the exclusion of one monologue near the end of the movie, she only speaks in single sentences. This does little to build up the character of a truly amazing woman.
Her mother, played by Oscar winner Lupita Nyong’o, also lacks in dimension. It is obvious that she loves her children, but there seems to be nothing else to motivate her. The anger she feels from her situation turns her into another sassy, black mother. Other characters in the film, like Phiona’s teammates seem to almost disappear halfway through the movie.
What can be said for the movie is that it was a big step toward diversity for Disney. Up until the Olympiad in Russia, there was not a single white character in the movie. This willingness to abandon the “white savior” trope is astounding from the same company that produced Pocahontas.
The film also used African actors. This casting choice is admirable because many Hollywood productions would choose to lighten a character’s skin and make them more European looking.
The attention this film gives to a truly amazing story of triumph from even the most dire circumstances is laudable. What could have made Queen of Katwe all the more powerful is to focus on who the story is about. If there was more time spent developing Phiona’s character into a three dimensional person, one who the viewer could empathize and love, there wouldn’t be the need for the constant stream of heartbreak. While it is impressive for a movie to stick so strictly to true events, it has forgotten to be about its protagonist, not the world around her.