“Queen of Katwe”
You will never see a more inspiring film than director Mira Nair’s “Queen of Katwe.” Everything about this film is memorable, and the fact that it is based on a true story will warm your heart from beginning to end.
Taking place in Uganda from 2007 to 2012, it tells the story of Phiona Mutesi, a young girl who rises from destitution in a poor village to achieve national fame as a chess prodigy. Madina Nalwanga gives a startlingly moving performance as Phiona, a pennyless young soul selling ears of corn on the street to help support her single mother and siblings.
However, the movie is dominated by David Oyelowo and Lupita Nyong’o, embodying two characters who define the human condition. Oyelowo plays Robert Katende, a young married father who takes a part-time job as a teacher at a small missionary school while trying to pursue a hopeful career as an engineer. As Katende, Oyelowo inspires Phiona to learn the game of chess after her curiosity causes her to stumble into his classroom. Oyelowo reminds me of a young Sidney Poitier, and if you have any doubt, hunt down his performance as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in “Selma” (2014).
As for Nyong’o, she has already won an Oscar for her searing performance in “12 Years a Slave” (2013). In “Queen of Katwe,” she plays a hard-nosed mother who fights to raise her children in a dignified manner as she scrapes together limited funds while trying to keep her children from starving. Despite the fact that she has been abandoned by her husband, she aggressively approaches life to try to make sure that her children live with a bit of dignity.
Before she became a chess champion and a national hero, Phiona began her schooling under Katende’s guidance as a young girl who was ridiculed for her clothing and body odor. But there was no quit in this child, and she literally becomes a human version of Secretariat as she glows under the umbrella of love and opportunity to go where no Ugandan woman had gone before.
There isn’t time to single out all of the other supporting actors in this cinematic treasure, but they all play important roles as you watch Phiona’s participation in various competitions. As Hollywood continues to wrestle with diversity problems brought out in last year’s Oscar selections, this film is a perfect vehicle for them to find redemption.
As the film ends and you try to dry away your tears, the cast individually appears on screen with the actual characters they played in the film. There wasn’t a dry eye in the entire theater.
“The Birth of a Nation”
Let’s stop all the criticism about the fact that Nate Parker, the director, writer and star of “The Birth of a Nation,” had previously been charged with rape. He was acquitted, and that has to mean something in our society. After all, while the legendary Errol Flynn, director Roman Polanski and Woody Allen have all been accused of sexual misconduct, they continue to play a role in the cinema. Other than the fact that they are white and Nate Parker is black, what is the difference?
“The Birth of a Nation” is a significant film, however, its strength is also its weakness. From an emotional standpoint, this is not an easy film to watch. The story of the wretched existence of black American slaves has been previous confronted in Alex Haley’s “Roots” (1977), “Django Unchained” (2012) and “12 Years a Slave” (2013). I thought all three of the above films were far better at confronting this stain on our national heritage.
The story of Nat Turner was told long ago in William Styron’s book “The Confessions of Nat Turner” (1967). Both the book and the movie described the life on slave plantations in the Antebellum South, and it hurts to be reminded of the truth.
In a nutshell, Nat Turner became a preacher used by his owner, Samuel Turner (Armie Hammer), to spread the gospel to other plantations. The uneasy white owners sought to find a way to comfort rebellious slaves while Turner found the opportunity to pocket some money in the process.
Additionally, Aja Naomi King stands out in her performance as Cherry, Nate’s wife. She is brutally raped by a slave catcher group led by Jackie Earle Haley, and that moment leaves you gasping for breath.
While Mr. Styron has been criticized in some quarters for painting Mr. Turner as a psychopath, it is apparent from this film that he was driven to madness. Having absorbed all the trauma that he could, he led a rebellious group to brutally hack to death some plantation owners and their families over a two-day period. Subsequently caught, it gives nothing away to say that they were hung in public as a large white crowd mocked them.
The real value of films like “The Birth of a Nation” is their contribution to American history. Not only did slavery in our country span over three centuries, it still existed after the writing of our Declaration of Independence. While we honor both George Washington and Thomas Jefferson with their busts on Mount Rushmore, we should not forget that they were both slave owners to their deaths
Tragically, while we freed the slaves in 1865, we did little more than say, “You’re on your own.” What’s worse, it was followed by the Ku Klux Klan, segregation and rampant discrimination, and we continue to ignore the catastrophic aftereffects that haunt our country to this day.•
Robert Hammerle practices criminal law in Indianapolis at Pence Hensel LLC as of counsel. When he is not in the courtroom or the office, Bob can likely be found at one of his favorite movie theaters. To read more of his reviews, visit www.bigmouthbobs.com. The opinions expressed are those of the author.