Queen of Katwe is a biographical drama starring David Oyelowo and Lupita Nyong’o, which will be released in September. The film narrates the journey of Ugandan chess prodigy Phiona Mutesi, who wins the title of Woman Candidate Master after winning the “Chess Olympics.”
Mutesi grew up in extreme poverty in the Uganadan slum of Katwe. Her father died of AIDS and she dropped out of school at the age of nine due to financial burdens — at one point she was sleeping on the streets. Mutesi’s story is told through the lens of sports writer Tim Crothers, an American white man who wrote a book about her journey.
In one part of his book, Crothers describes Ugandan people as having “A uniquely African peace of mind … more serene than the average American.” he went on to explain their situation of poverty in these words: “It has to do with access. Many people in Katwe do not know there is anything better for which to strive, which leads to an odd kind of tranquility, which some might call lethargy.” WTF?
Crothers basically asserts that laziness and complacency are the main causes poverty in the slums of Katwe, not systemic disenfranchisement or the draining of resources from colonial powers. His white colonial narrative blames the individual to avoid examining the social and political forces that contribute to extreme poverty in African countries like Uganda — but this is nothing new.
The United States is known for maintaining this myth of rugged individualism, the idea that anything can be overcome as long as we aren’t “lethargic” and we take responsibility for our fates. Amid this fantasy we can ignore that, at the heart of things, we are social individuals. It is through communities and societies that we maintain oppression, and it is through these same vehicles that we transcend it. Nevertheless, Americans like a good underdog story, and the Disney production Queen of Katwe is a prime example of this.
By no means am I trying to underplay Phiona Mutesi’s story. However, I’m wondering about the stories of the many other children in Katwe who, due to lack of access, were unable to uncover their gifts, due to extreme poverty.
Tupac Shakur discussed the phenomenon of “making it” in spite of structural obstacles in his poem “The Rose that Grew from Concrete,” in which he describes a rose that was somehow able to bloom despite growing up in an inhospitable environment. This poem is not an ode to rugged individualism; it is an indictment of nefarious social forces that inhibit people from reaching self-actualization:
Did you hear about the rose that grew
from a crack in the concrete?
Proving nature’s law is wrong it
learned to walk with out having feet.
Funny it seems, but by keeping its dreams,
it learned to breathe fresh air.
Long live the rose that grew from concrete
when no one else ever cared.
How would Phiona Mutesi’s story have changed if it were told from the lens of someone who shared her lived experience? It’s crucial to tell stories that interrogate systemic inequality fueled by colonialism and white supremacy, and in order to do this, the “voiceless” must have media ownership. I dream of a world in which marginalized people are able to write, produce and fund their own stories without being filtered through a white, paternal lens. This is equity, living, breathing and active.