“ Queen of Katwe” and movies as cultural weapons

A s the debate about the tearing down of monuments and cancel culture in general has evolved, we’re beginning to see the problem with zero tolerance. If we are going to flush all the people and culture that are flawed with racism, anti-semitism, sexism and other sins, little or no culture would be left standing. Our greatest artists and most thinkers would all be gone. We’d have to blast Mt Rushmore clean of those undoubtedly imperfect heroes.

Such fastidiousness would certainly have a chilling effect on the erection of any future monuments, including any monument to leaders of the Cancel Culture.

If a monument or symbol is being used in the present moment of political and cultural struggle as a weapon to hurt people, then it seems a legit target, especially for those being hurt and those on their side. It’s always a judgment call—there’s no clay tablet with the ultimate truth written on it— but I would say that the flaunting of Confederate flags and swastikas fall into that category of weapons. Going after subtler offenders can smack of glass house stone-throwing and scapegoating.

In thinking about potentially dangerous culture, what about movies? I recently saw the 2016 movie “Queen of Katwe”—if you haven’t seen it, you have a pleasure in store. It’s about a young girl in a Kampala, Uganda slum whose chess genius lifts her and her family out of abject misery of the sort we associate with Africa. It seems the very opposite of racism: a heartwarming and heart-rending story—based on a true one—with loveable and inspirational models in the girl, her coach, her mother.

But the movie, A Disney production, has inherent contradictions.

The inspirational message is: if you want to escape from African slum misery, be a chess genius or closely related to her. Not really, when you look at it, a very encouraging message.

You root with tears for that escape because the Katwe slum is shown to be teeming, filthy, chaotic, and life tenuous. At a low point Fiona’s family is evicted from their miserable home..

But on the other hand, all the lovely, touching life of the film is that of that very same slum, filmed as visually rich, full of music, dancing, flashing eyes and smiles, humor. If you needed an illustration of the old “black is beautiful” slogan, this would be a good one. No place else—the other parts of the world Fiona travels to in her chess ascent, the better-off people she meets, are a fraction so attractive. They are, by comparison, uptight, cold, bland.

In the world as presented by this film, if you want life, love, music, humanity at its best, a miserable African slum is where it’s at.

In the viewing experience the escape goes the other way. The movie itself becomes the escape of its first world viewers from our relatively lifeless life.

(My wife and I went around for days trying to loosen our hips in what is no doubt a grotesque attempt to dance like everyone, even a chess nerd, can dance in Katwe)

When it comes to cultural struggle, movies and TV series, getting such a large slice of national attention, would seem to be much more influential than a statue of a soldier on a horse, or the name of an old wealthy racist on an academic building, in part because we don’t usually think of movies that way.

A movie such as “Queen of Katwe”, because it’s well done, and touches the heart, does influence one powerfully. But in what direction? Is it really so different in its influence from Disney’s 1940s “Song of the South,” often criticized for its racist romantic depiction of plantation life in the old south?

I doubt very many viewers of this lovely, touching movie will want to censor or cancel it. But clearly it’s a movie to be thoughtful about. There is lots of work here for movie criticism that takes seriously the influence of movies on national life.


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