Film & Television

‘Queen of Katwe’: A Real-Life Disney Princess Earns her Crown

Over the past few decades, Disney has been criticized for creating princesses who didn’t quite live up to feminist ideals. Some need a prince to come and save them (Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella); some give up everything for their man (Ariel); some are wooed and won by wealth (Belle) or by stealth (Jasmine). Then, there are the impossible standards of cartoon beauty: tiny waists, lustrous locks, big doe eyes. My daughter went through a Disney princess phase many moons ago, as most girls around here do. I confess I was happy when it came to an end.

On the other hand, I wish Disney’s wondrous new film Queen of Katwe had been produced back when I still had control over what my daughter watched. With its empowering message and determined heroine, the movie finds real inspiration in a remarkable true story.

The set-up of Queen of Katwe will feel familiar: unlikely child prodigy must reconcile his/her gifts with his/her surroundings (it follows in the tradition of Akeelah and the Bee, Little Man Tate, and many others). There is intrinsic tension between a mentor who recognizes the child’s potential and a parent who wants to protect them from disappointment out in the larger world. These films can be very good or very sappy, but their shared goal is to uplift. The new movie certainly fulfills there.

In 2007, Phiona Mutesi was a young girl living with her widowed, impoverished mother and three siblings in Katwe, a slum of Kampala, Uganda. The children sell maize to help fund the family’s barebones existence. They cannot go to school, not only because they must work, but because their mother Harriet can’t afford school uniforms. Phiona’s older sister Night sets her sights on an escape of sorts, succumbing to the advances of a flashy boyfriend who is probably a pimp. It is sadly unlikely that Phiona will escape a similar fate.

One day, Phiona follows her brother and discovers a makeshift chess school, run by a sports missionary. Although she’s rejected by the other students at first (“You smell!” they taunt her, in the cruel way that the underprivileged go after the even more underprivileged), she returns and begins to learn and then excel at the game. “This is a place for fighters,” the coach assures her. And, indeed, her skills become a literal ticket out of Katwe, first to regional tournaments and eventually to national and even international competitions. Today, the real Phiona is one of only two Ugandan women to hold an official chess title.

In addition to living her own personal rags-to-riches story, Phiona is able to help her family and becomes a symbol of hope for the entire community. This is by no means a spoiler. We go to movies like Queen of Katwe to experience just this sort of satisfying redemption. But, Phiona’s journey is neither straight nor smooth. In fact, in the talented hands of director Mira Nair, her story is richer and more dimensional than it might have been. Phiona’s life is not all bad before she learns chess. And, it’s not all good after.

Nair, a universally respected director from India who now lives in Uganda, is best known for cross-cultural masterpieces Mississippi Masala, The Namesake, Salaam Bombay, and my favorite Monsoon Wedding. She has said that her criteria for choosing a project is direct and simple. She asks herself, “Can anyone else make it?” In the case of Queen of Katwe, she didn’t think so. Although Disney was involved with the project from the start (a Disney executive approached Nair with the idea in 2013), they gave her creative freedom. “Disney never pressured me to sugarcoat or sanitize,” she recalls. “I think of it as my film.” Her autonomy started most significantly with casting.

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