Queen of Katwe is a ‘Disney movie’ set in Uganda. But it’s also a Mira Nair film and part of David Oyelowo’s overall project to bring African stories into mainstream cinemas. These three factors ought to combine to create a significant box office hit. The film itself is very good and had the same emotional impact for me as A United Kingdom. Unfortunately, however, Disney as a corporation seems to tripped up in trying to promote the film. There are many websites, videos and stories online about the original project and the Disney film, so perhaps the problem is that the Disney brand is so deeply embedded in the public consciousness that audiences are unable to negotiate it in different ways. Either way, the result is that despite an initial ‘wide’ release in the UK and US, Queen of Katwe hasn’t found the audience it seeks. I finally managed to get to a local screening organised by Keighley Film club, which is able to screen films in our 1913 Picture House. I hope many more find it on DVD/Blu-ray and TV in the coming months.
The story is set in Katwe, a district of Kampala (population 1.5 million) the capital of Uganda. It’s a true story and in the final credits we meet the ‘real’ characters in the drama. Katwe appears to have a reputation both as an innovative centre for artisan manufacture and as a sprawling ‘slum’ district. In the film it comes across much like the shanty towns of other African cities with low quality housing thrown up alongside the railway track. In other descriptions, Katwe is presented as the worst kind of slum with no sanitation, no secure accommodation and a trap into which the poor from rural areas and other parts of the city are destined to fall. As photographed by Nair’s cinematographer Sean Bobbit it looks bright and lively, but also plagued by sewage and subject to flooding. In this unlikely setting Harriet (Lupita Nyong’o) is the single parent of three children. The two younger children, close in age, are Brian and Phiona (Madina Nalwanga) and it is the latter who is the focus of the film. (The older daughter Night provides the illustration of what Phiona might become if she gives up the discipline of chess.) The film’s title logically refers to Phiona who, through her success in chess tournaments, will become a celebrated media star. But it is also possible to see her mother as a ‘Queen’, simply on the basis that Lupita Nyong’o is such a stunning star presence with the stature of a model and the experience of red carpet occasions as well as her own distinguished family background. There is no reason why mothers in Katwe shouldn’t be beautiful, but Nyong’o certainly stands out.
Phiona discovers chess alongside Brian in a community ‘school’ run by an outreach worker for a Christian charity. Robert Katende himself had a difficult childhood. You can learn about his life through a documentary made by Mira Nair and available on Vimeo. The same documentary is also available on The Queen of Katwe website from Sport Outreach. Katende’s childhood involved the dangers of living in the bush with the violence of the DRC spreading over the border. In the film he becomes an ex-footballer who has had to retire because of injury and a qualified engineer with an excellent degree thwarted by the recruitment policies of local firms. This latter is explored through the class divisions in Ugandan society when Katende takes his brightest hopes, including Phiona and Brian to a competition in an upmarket school where the Katwe children are at first treated as aliens.
At first glance, it isn’t difficult to see why Disney agreed to fund the film. It combines two attractive ideas for the studio – a bright and intelligent young female lead character (for a studio that has brought us Brave and Moana in the last few years) and a solid genre narrative as a ‘sports movie’ with a charismatic ‘coach’ and enough dramatic conflict, but also a ‘happy ending’. As a bonus it is based on a true story. Working with a director like Mira Nair is perhaps an innovation for the main Disney brand (as distinct from Disney’s previous ‘adult brands’ such as Touchstone). Queen of Katwe actually originated from ESPN, Disney’s majority-owned sports company in the form of a magazine article and book by Tim Crothers, but it is branded with the Disney logo. Nair has a distinctive approach which includes work with non-professional actors (e.g. in Salaam Bombay) as well as a background in documentary filmmaking. Madina Nalwanga had not acted before but she has trained as a dancer and the skills she has learned helped her to maintain composure in the role. Mira Nair also has the local knowledge that is so important in making this kind of film in a country with limited film infrastructure like Uganda. She is married to a Ugandan and in 1991 she made Mississippi Mermaid which followed the story of an East Asian family from Uganda migrating to the American South. That story focused on the daughter of the family played by Sarita Choudhury. In the case of Queen of Katwe, it would appear that the Disney ‘front office’ kept its distance and Nair was able to make the film on her own terms in Kampala with support from the South African film infrastructure which has interests in East Africa.
The problems for this film have come in distribution and exhibition. In the UK, Disney is able to organise cinema ads and trailers that target the same audience as the Disney film that is showing. When I saw the film there were no children in the audience which was predominantly 55+ but we got trails for new Disney films. Disney needed two strategies to sell the film to two different audiences in multiplexes and in specialised cinemas. They failed to reach audiences in both. I think the situation in North America was similar. The critics (professional and amateur) rated the film highly but audiences didn’t find the film. Perhaps Queen of Katwe is a ‘safe’ film in terms of its story, but though it pursues a genre narrative, it avoids easy sentimentality and sticks largely to the facts. It doesn’t need any white characters to in any way ‘legitimise’ Phiona’s success as a chess player. I can imagine it would have been tempting for Disney to press for Phiona’s story to end up in the US. But the film sticks to two overseas trips – to Sudan and Russia. At the end of the film, a song from Alicia Keys appears. I thought this was out of place (I like Ms Keys and the song, but it didn’t fit here for me, even though she wrote it specifically for the film). There’s a clip here explaining why she wrote it – and some comments by the cast about the music scene in Uganda. I urge you to see this film and if you want to learn more I suggest looking at the various clips, interviews and documentaries on YouTube. Here’s the trailer (with the Alicia Keys song):
and here’s a documentary from NTV Uganda:
Jackie is a surprising film. I found it to be a riveting watch and it left me strangely uplifted but also puzzled. I’m not sure what immediate conclusions, if any, I came to except that I’m glad I saw it on a big screen. It’s a film about a moment of American history that resonated around the world for those of us alive in 1963 and that has been ‘re-presented’ in different ways ever since. But though this is an American event, it doesn’t feel like an American film, or at least it doesn’t seem to belong to either Hollywood or American Independent Cinema, despite the involvement of several US producers. Instead, this is essentially a French film directed by the Chilean auteur Pablo Larrain. The script and the impressive cast are mainly American but the creative personnel supporting Larrain are European. The best known of the production companies involved, the French company Why Not Productions, has been involved in the recent films of Jacques Audiard and Ken Loach. In what follows I try to analyse my response.
The opening frames of the film set me trying to calculate the aspect ratio. In our local cinema that is usually proud of its presentation procedures, the image was not properly masked. Eventually I realised that it was set as 1.66:1, that odd ratio favoured by some European and British producers for many years after the development of widescreen processes in the 1950s. It was only later that the lack of masking reminded me of a similar problem with Pablo Larrain’s earlier film No (Chile-US-France-Mexico 2011). The way cinema projection boxes are set up for DCPs now means that the projected image is set to 1.85:1 with the smaller 1.66:1 framing inside it. When the image is bright and the film frame is not masked, the letterboxing at the sides is always visible as dark grey and I found it distracting. The irony is that Jackie was shot on Super 16 film, giving the image a slightly grainier and less sharp/bright feel than a digital original image. To add to the disturbance of the framing and image texture, the score by the British composer Mica Levy (best known for her score for Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin) and some of the compositions by DoP Stéphane Fontaine are equally unsettling. Together they set up very well the performances by the actors and especially that of Natalie Portman as Jackie Kennedy.
Jackie is routinely described as a ‘biopic’ by reviewers. But I don’t buy this. A biopic needs to cover a substantial part of a subject’s life with at least some reference to childhood and other key stages in the development of the adult persona. Jackie focuses on not much more than one intensely dramatic week of the life of Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy plus some occasional references to earlier events. The narrative structure is such that these events are discussed in retrospect in an interview given to a journalist (such an interview was conducted by Theodore H White for Life magazine in 1964) in the rather austere surroundings of a house in the Kennedy ‘homeland’ of Hiyannis Port in Massachusetts.
The original choice for the director of the film was Darren Aranovsky who later became one of several producers. He is reported to have told Natalie Portman that the key to the film was Jackie’s voice. The character is in virtually every scene and must go through some terrible experiences. Portman appears to have responded fully to his comment in her study of Jackie Kennedy and her delivery has become one of the talking points of the film. Portman does not ‘resemble’ Mrs Kennedy, either facially or in her body shape. The hairstyle and the iconic Chanel suits certainly help to create the character but a lot depends on the voice and on Portman’s performance skills. I have no memory of hearing Jackie Kennedy speak so the only signifier for me was when Portman shifts her voice between the soft, breathy and almost girlish ‘public voice’ of the character and the more clipped and authoritative voice she uses for the ‘behind the scenes’ moments. Overall, I found the performance convincing. I didn’t know much about Jackie before I saw the film and what I learned from the film and subsequently through research I found interesting.
It seems to me that the film illustrates two main points. The first is that there is humanity even in the processes inside the White House and the Presidency. Everyone treats Jackie and her children with respect even as a new administration has to begin. I’m not sure how ‘true’ or ‘realistic’ this is. In one scene Bobby Kennedy (Peter Sarsgaard) orders everyone, including President Johnson, to sit down when Jackie is under stress. Johnson is represented as an amenable figure – which belies the stories of his anger and violent language, though the camera does hint at what he and Ladybird might be saying off screen/off microphone. Personally, I found the scenes of Jackie coping with her grief and the procedures she had to follow quite moving. The other main theme of the film is Jackie’s attempt to create the image of JFK’s legacy. She did this as a continuation of her earlier attempts to redecorate the White House and to learn from the history of other presidential figures. We can see this theme played out both in her determination to organise an appropriate state funeral and burial at Arlington and in the way she conducts the interview with the journalist (played by Billy Crudup with a distinct swagger). Again, I rather admired Jackie as a character and Natalie Portman’s performance.
I’m grateful to Nick Lacey, my viewing partner, who found this useful interview with Stéphane Fontaine on ‘No Film School’. It was Nick who spotted the use of 16mm and in the interview Fontaine explains how he and Pablo Larrain approached the shoot which was mainly in a Paris studio with only a few exteriors in Washington. Larrain went so far as to bring an old three-tube video camera (as used in No) from Chile to Paris in an attempt to ‘insert’ Portman into the 1962 video recording of Mrs Kennedy offering TV viewers a tour around the White House – one of the pre-assassination sequences included to help build Jackie’s persona as a character. The film’s whole budget is listed as $9 million on IMDB which seems extraordinary (it’s quite a lot less than most mainstream French features). All I can say is well done to cast and crew. If you are interested in cinematography this interview is a must.
In conclusion, Jackie is a terrific emotional narrative with a stunning central performance and very good support from a talented supporting cast (including Greta Gerwig, Richard E. Grant and John Hurt). I suspect it will surprise many audiences. I just hope they are open to the approach adopted by Pablo Larrain and his crew and prepared to learn a bit more about an era and a group of historical figures who they think they might already know well.
Here’s a promotional clip from the film in which Jackie fights for the funeral parade she wants:
This clip from a 1961 TV interview reveals not just the real Mrs Kennedy’s’s speaking voice, but also her historical knowledge about the White House. Some of her statements are used verbatim in the new film.
Few directors divide audiences quite like Abel Ferrara. I can remember having seen Ms 45 (US 1981) and Bad Lieutenant (US 1992). I think I might have seen at least one more. I wasn’t repulsed by these films as many critics have recorded. I was intrigued by this new film as I did follow the news story about Dominique Strauss-Kahn which provides the story details – although I didn’t follow every aspect of the coverage. That’s quite important because Ferrara provides no context or ‘back story’ to what we see and there were several references that I didn’t recognise until I researched the story after the screening.
The film opens with the usual disclaimers about being fictitious but ‘inspired by’ etc. What then follows is an interview with Gerard Depardieu, something like the pre-credits sequence of Godard’s Tout Va Bien, in which he says he doesn’t like politicians and that as an actor he doesn’t ‘feel’ for the characters he plays. All this is directed towards journalists – and at one point, I think, delivered straight to camera, something which happens again later in the film proper. This device leads to suggestions that Ferrara has created some kind of ‘meta text’ – a view supported by the inclusion at various points of video footage from the ‘real’ Dominique Strauss-Kahn (DSK) news story. At another point later in the film the lawyer for the Depardieu character tells us that the whole trial in which his client is appearing is not happening in the ‘real world’ but, á la Baudrillard, is playing out as a media text/construction in which the real people involved are ‘playing’ roles. Add to this the very presence of Depardieu as a ‘tax exile’ and reviled superstar of French cinema, sometimes seen as prostituting his talent in unworthy projects, and we have a very interesting set of representations.
Depardieu plays ‘M. Devereaux’, a French banker of international standing who is passing through New York on his way back to Paris. He is introduced as the kind of man who employs young women to offer sexual favours to anyone who visits his office and who finds a sex party ready for him when he registers at his Manhattan hotel. We are then offered around twenty minutes of sexual activity in which the grossly overweight Depardieu satisfies himself with various call girls and then later assaults the woman from housekeeping who comes to clean his room – the crime for which DSK was arrested. There aren’t many ’18’ films around these days and the sex here seemed fairly explicit (much bearing of breasts and buttocks but no genitals) and it was only later that I realised it wasn’t anywhere near as explicit as Nymphomaniac. I’m not sure what I make of that observation. I’ve seen reviews that express disgust and others that see Ferrara as offering ‘soft porn’. I suppose that the latter is technically correct. My own reaction was to note that Ferrara and his regular DoP Ken Kelsch film the sex action in a very ‘matter of fact’ way. There is no attempt to make it ‘erotic’ – instead, it is left to the audience to create their own eroticism from what is shown. There is ‘violence’ in terms of spankings but I think that Ferrara distinguishes between the prostitutes who laugh and giggle after the event and the two women who are later shown to be very upset after assaults by Devereaux. The women playing the call girls (‘real’ prostitutes?) are treated as sex objects, but the amount of female flesh is almost matched by the acreage of Depardieu’s paunch (we would get more of a full frontal if the paunch wasn’t in the way). I’m not sure if this stops the film being sexist. The film also suggests that M. Devereaux has a sex addiction, or at least believes himself that he does.
I can’t really ‘spoil’ the narrative because the film follows the ‘real’ story – DSK was arrested and kept in prison on remand before being released on bail. Charges were then dropped. Clearly there is an opportunity for satire here – on the American legal system, the ‘equality’ of the law as it pertains to international bankers etc. What actually follows, I think, is a film which holds attention mainly through the performances of Depardieu and then Jacqueline Bisset as his wife who arrives from Paris, furious that she has to rescue him again. Bisset looks very good (is it really 46 years since I saw her in Bullitt?) and plays her role very well. (Her character has the inherited wealth and is concerned for her own status/public profile.)
Whatever critics might think about Depardieu he commands the screen and he exerts a certain kind of charm even as his flesh billows out all around him. The key scene here is when he is strip-searched in prison. The whole prison sequence is riveting. I read that Ferrara employed ‘real’ prison warders. It’s hilarious but somehow Depardieu keeps his dignity. The other prisoners, real hard guys, look bemused but respectful.
The ‘real’ DSK case fizzled out (the prosecutor decided that the victim would not be a reliable witness in court) with suggestions in the media that both DSK was being stitched up in the way the case was constructed but also that he was probably guilty. Either way he wasn’t able to pursue a political career and is now (according to Wikipedia) facing further charges in France. What does Ferrara’s film offer in response? Well, I enjoyed the film on several levels without condoning the behaviour of M. Devereaux. The audience I was with also seemed to enjoy it and one man on the front row laughed uproariously at regular intervals. Ferrara also showed that the story could be told without resorting to tabloid sensationalism. I’m not sure I learned too much about international banking or the US legal system but I do feel that some questions were raised and some positions/arguments exposed. Overall a good thing I think.
The film is released in the UK by Altitude Films: