Eye on Film: Queen of Katwe 

On Thursday, The Shadow League was in attendance at the Urbanworld Film Festival in New York. In its 20-year history, the UWFF has become the preeminent festival for content featuring, created and produced by women and people of color. This year’s sterling example of brilliance is Disney’s Queen of Katwe, starring the beautiful Ugandan actress Madina Nalwanga in her film debut as Phiona.

Based on a novel by Tim Crothers about the life of Ugandan Chess Champion Phiona Mutesi, Queen of Katwe tells the story of a young girl living in the constant worry and uncertainty of extreme poverty. She sells maize along with her younger brother to help feed the family.

A poor girl in a Ugandan slum has very few options in life, but Phiona finds the key to unlocking her genius with the game of chess. Starring Lupita N’yongo, David Oyelowo and Madina Nalwanga as Phiona, Queen of Katwe is a beautiful story of personal triumph that is filled with soul, rhythm, struggle and triumph.

Admittedly, when I heard that the story of Phiona would be brought to life on the big screen, I was hesitant to embrace it. Disney historically has been blasted for its lack of diversity in storytelling and white-washing. But the masterful directing, realistic cinematic offering makes Queen of Katwe just too great a film to deny.

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“The Urbanworld Film Festival reflects the world that I belong in and the world we’re in, which is rarely on our screen, so thank you Urbanworld,” said director Mira Nair as she introduced the film. “I welcome you, ladies and gentleman, to Love Song to Kampala: The Queen of Katwe. Katwe, Uganda, where the story is set, has been my home for 27 years. It’s where I’ve fallen in love, I raised a son, planted gardens and recently had my life saved by some amazing Ugandan doctors. I’m really grateful to be standing here and presenting to you this love song. It’s a testimony to the fact that, really, genius is everywhere. It just depends on teachers and family and communities to nurture that genius.”

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She was joined in presenting the 2016 Centerpiece Spotlight film by Urbanworld Film Festival ambassador David Oyelowo, who plays the role of Robert Katende. As has become the norm, Mr. Oyelowo dazzled the room with his oration, positive energy and humor.

“It’s such a big privilege for me to be here again,” said Oyelowo. “The last time I was here was with Ava Duvernay for her film Selma. It was the very first time we had done such a thing, and the reception we got here really set the tone for what that film was to become. I’m back with another world-class genius director. Also, I’m back this year as an ambassador to this amazing festival.”

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“The word urban, to me, really means melting pot,” Oyelowo continued. “We have that on this film. We have Mira, who’s Indian but lived in Uganda for years of her life and has called that place home. I’m from Nigeria, Lupita’s from Kenya, and we had South African crew, British crew, Ugandan crew, American crew, all of them coming together to tell a story that, as Mira said, reflects the world we actually live in. I want to thank Disney for making this film. A reminder to studios that black does travel. That continent produces beauty and power from within, not from without.”

Queen of Katwe was this year’s Centerpiece Spotlight for the 2016 Urbanworld Film Festival. It will force its way into your calloused and depressed heart.  You’ll smile and laugh despite yourself.  

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