The limits of PG in ‘Queen of Katwe’
Matthew Macke | Thursday, November 3, 2016
“10 Hidden Adult Jokes in Children’s Movies,” “27 Dirty Jokes You Never Noticed in Disney Movies.” A quick look at some of the clickbait ads you can find around the internet will let you know that children’s movies almost always slip in some kind of mature content. Typically, these allusions are used as a subtle shout-out to the parents in the audience — something to reward their responsible parenting. They can, however, go beyond simple innuendo to something more substantial.
Disney’s recently released movie “Queen of Katwe” walks the line delicately between PG-rated family entertainment and something more haunting. This is ostensibly a kid’s movie, but includes whispers of the issues that make up the heart of R-rated dramas. The story follows the main character Phiona Mutesi, portrayed by cinematic newcomer Madina Nalwanga, as she deals with the struggles of growing up in poverty in Uganda. She stumbles upon a chess club run by Robert Katende (David Oyelowo), and, before long, establishes herself as its best player, much to the chagrin of her male teammates. Despite the untraditional setting and atypical game, “Queen of Katwe” is, at its heart, a fairly traditional sports movie.
Where director Mira Nair’s production wades into deeper waters is in its careful representation of the severe poverty experienced by Phiona and her family. Led by their mother and matriarch Nakku Harriet (Lupita Nyong’o), Phiona and her brother work to sell maize, meaning neither attends school. Her older sister Night leaves their home early in the narrative to stay with a man who rides around the slums on his motorcycle hoping to impress women.“My bike is worth more than your whole house,” he says when Nakku tries to get him away from her daughters. Night occasionally returns wearing glamorous clothes and always sporting a stylish new haircut, but, by the end of the film, she has moved back home alone and pregnant. Night’s brief foray into wealth is juxtaposed with Phiona’s success.
As Phiona becomes a more important figure in the world of chess, she takes part in competitions that earn her money and respect. The players that she and her teammates face are always of a higher social class, physically manifesting the children’s fight against their economic conditions. At her lowest point, Phiona struggles to accept her situation, and wonders why her life can’t look more like those of her opponents. She approaches Robert asking if she can stay with him, questioning whether she needs to find some kind of concrete success before boys start seeking her out, like they did Night.
In this conversation, Phiona shows impressive understanding of her tenuous position in Ugandan society. Her own mother, to the consternation of her landlord, has resisted remarrying, but begins to fear that her morals are hurting her children. According to Girls, Not Brides, almost one of every two girls in Uganda will be married before adulthood, so Phiona’s trials are hardly the work of Hollywood.
“Queen of Katwe” is a film that could easily be much more jarring than it is — I haven’t even addressed the fact that Robert’s parents died in the war when he was young. Due to its PG rating, however, it is unable to say precisely what it means. This makes it an impressive children’s film, but one that feels incomplete. Unfortunately, because of the overruling chess plot, most of these topics aren’t addressed in a way that might engender discussion among families.
As it stands now, “Queen of Katwe” is a heartwarming movie, but it’s hard not to wonder exactly what the actors, especially Nyong’o and Oyelowo, could have done if this script were untethered from its PG guidelines. That could take the movie from sweet with mature undertones to powerful and moving. Compared to the adult content alluded to in internet ads, however, “Queen of Katwe” is an acrobat smoothly swinging from light-hearted to serious without plummeting downward into something more dangerous, even if most people come to the show for the danger.