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2016 Milwaukee Film Festival – Day Three – John Ridley and QUEEN OF KATWE

Posted on Sep 25, 2016 by | 0 comments

The first weekend of the 2016 Milwaukee Film Festival featured some lovely weather and more than movies to draw one out to the theater. In this case, Milwaukee Film flew in John Ridley, longtime Mequon resident and Oscar winner for 12 YEARS A SLAVE, busy working on two television series, to talk about his career and the state of cinema.

Milwaukee Film set this panel up as a conversation between artistic director Jonathan Jackson and John Ridley rather than a speech and it certainly felt more intimate and personal than many speeches do. A lot of time was spent on Ridley’s career, his start in on MARTIN, how he wrote the screenplay to THREE KINGS in a week because someone asked him if he had a screenplay and he said yes, and working in television vs. working in film. The role of subsidies was discussed and how Milwaukee is prepared or not prepared to support filmmakers. It was a different sort of state of cinema talk than the usual and perhaps more interesting as a result.

Reaching out to African Americans was certainly part of Ridley’s perspective, he said he’s the only writer from MARTIN still regularly working, and certainly thinks Hollywood can do better. He made the astute point that working with cameras, color correction, post-production, etc. were technology fields which America is pushing for more people to get into and perhaps film and television should be pushed more as an example. Also, when it was noted that the crowd that came to hear him speak was predominantly white, Ridley made the point that as much as Milwaukee Film is seeking to be inclusive, complete with a Black Lens program, they may need to go to where the people are instead of expecting the people to make the trek over to the east side of Milwaukee. That’s a topic worth thinking about for the future of the Milwaukee Film Festival in order to make it more inclusive to the City of Milwaukee if they want the festival to continue to grow.

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One of the big spotlight presentations this year was Disney’s QUEEN OF KATWE which had a sold out crowd. QUEEN OF KATWE is the inspirational sports story of a young chess prodigy that overcomes her impoverished surroundings to compete at the highest level. This one has a more international nature as the subject in question, Phiona (Madina Malwanga) is from the slums of Uganda which makes the underdog story even more unlikely.

There’s no getting around the fact that this is a very familiar story. An opening prologue removes much of the suspense around it, perhaps intentionally, so there are no real surprises. The script is not going to win any prizes, there’s nothing really unpredictable about the story and there are a few threads that start but abruptly end, but it does pay attention to character over the plot turns and intricacies of chess, and that is to its credit. It also doesn’t feel the need to create villains for our heroes to overcome, there’s nobody screeching “girls can’t play chess” that needs to have a comeuppance. And the story is inspirational, even if it is also familiar.

What distinguishes the film though is the direction by Mira Nair and the terrific cast. It’s stepping out of the box a bit that Mira Nair tells a tale that has nothing to do with India but remains thoroughly consistent with her style. She layers colors and activity in foreground and background and creates a vibrant lived in world. The film is a marvel of miese en scene. She’s able to keep things small and mostly realistic while bringing through the emotion clearly. And, she gets great performances out of the whole cast, with the child actors feeling like real children rather than caricatures.

Standing out in the cast is Lupita Nyongo who gets to really dig into the role of strict, proud mother who doesn’t quite know how to deal with her prodigy daughter. She’s rightfully afraid that this success will not last and will not prepare her daughter to dealing with the harshness of life. But, if she’s not always supportive, it’s always clear that she loves her children and would do almost anything for their happiness. It’s a layered, strong performance, a scene in particular where she tests how far she’s willing to bend her principles for the good of her family stands out, and a worthy followup performance to 12 YEARS A SLAVE.

Not far behind her is David Oyelowo as Phiona’s chess teacher who supports her as best he can. There’s strong intelligence, dignity, and kindness behind his performance that really creates a likable character. And humor too as he’s soon bypassed by Phiona’s chess skills. There’s an unnecessary subplot to his arc involving a better job offer, but it just gives Oyelowo more scenes to be a welcome presence in.

QUEEN OF KATWE is a film with people of color in front of and behind the camera in large numbers, just like Hollywood has been asked to do for years. There’s not a white savior character nor a white villain character. Unsurprisingly, looking at the resume of this cast and crew, the film works just fine. It’s not a super ambitious story or anything, but it certainly is a positive step to making Hollywood films more reflective of the world.

QUEEN OF KATWE is certainly not a great film, it’s too by the book for that, but it’s still a very effective crowd-pleaser. It’s character focused, directed with flair and sensitivity, and well acted across the board with several terrific performances. It’s the type of film that gives the “inspiration sports story” genre a good name.

The 2016 Milwaukee Film Festival runs through October 6th. Tickets can be purchased at Milwaukee Film’s website.

Robert Reineke
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