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If we are to believe Disney’s Queen of Katwe, it is chess that saved Phiona Mutesi—that and self-help bromides from her teacher. Nobody should expect a film to be a sermon, but when a film (nearly) purges religion from an evangelical group’s work helping poor children in Uganda, there is a problem. When the marvelous teacher (played perfectly by David Oyelowo) decides to pass on his ideal engineering job to stay in ministry, any religious motivation is missing. We see his love for his wife, his commitment to help children, but no discussion of God’s will. Bible verses appear on walls, but only the sort (“Come let us reason together”) that a secular audience might not realize are Bible verses.
We get a prayer, but it is very short and to “Father.” Jesus? I don’t think His name shows up in the PG-rated film. Anybody want to bet whether a Ugandan evangelical ministry ever talks about Jesus? Why is this offensive? Hollywood never gets a “true story” right, but in this case it buries the lead. Chess did not save Phiona Mutesi; God did through the work of great men and women like Robert Katende and his teacher-wife Sara (played by Esther Tebandeke).
Phiona learns chess in a church, but good luck telling it is a church for most of the movie. In real life, Phiona puts “God first,” but in the film she studies chess books and evidently does not own a Bible. Try telling the story of Harvey Milk while scarcely mentioning that he was gay, or of Martin Luther King Jr. with a “racially ambiguous” character, and see how Hollywood reacts. A group called Sports Outreach that has a cross on the van and has Bible studies with the chess lessons and food distribution is inherently religious. Until we see the cross on the van, Sports Outreach might as well be a United Nations group. The food and the chess are given to the children, but the Bible study is not.
Only the strong mother Nakku Harriet (Lupita Nyong’o), uneducated but full of godly principles, is given religious motivations for her actions. She avoids the pit of sexual sin that snares one daughter, Night (Taryn Kyaze), even when sin looks like the only way to feed the family. This shows Disney could have written religious motives for all the characters that had them, including the engineer-pastor who runs the chess club, but chose not to do so.
There are good points in the film.
The acting is uniformly marvelous, especially Madina Nalwanga as Phiona. She is given a chance to show some range as the script depicts her struggling with bridging her home life and her new “success.”
The film shows that Africa is not just poor. It has (like the United States) two sides, including a prosperous, well-educated side. Best of all, there are no “white saviors” in sight. Ugandans are helping Ugandans. This is marvelous. Disney challenges us to think about the virtues of the poor without glorifying poverty. It shows the downside of rising wealth and superficial education while showing the benefits of both wealth and education. What if the film had also shown that Christianity helps some people?
That would have been an important film, but as it is the film is a near miss. This is too bad, because the story is well-written, even if it suffers from at least three endings. Disney shows that it can get Uganda sort-of-right, but Uganda’s pervasive Christianity must be minimized. We should ask: “Why?”
—See book review in "Fresh off the shelf" in this issue.