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Three Fine Films


(From top) Madina Nalwanga is Phiona Mutesi in Queen of Katwe, the true story of a young girl from rural Uganda whose world changes when she is introduced to the game of chess; Ruth Williams Khama (Rosamund Pike) and Seretse Khama (David Oyelowo) in A United Kingdom; and Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer), Katherine Goble Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe) meet John Glenn (Glen Powell) in Hidden Figures.

Photos (from top): Edward Echwalu; BBC Films;Fox 2000

Reviewed By Sue Careless

ONE OF THE TRICKIEST challenges when running a Christian camp for teens or a youth group is finding a film for movie night that will be suitable for a wide age range and a variety of maturity levels and sensibilities. Many churches now run film nights and are also on the lookout for works worth screening. Here are three truly wonderful films that might be considered. (Of course leaders, who know their particular audience better than any film critic, should always preview any film.)

These three are all based on true stories.


Queen of Katwe

While Queen of Katwe (PG) is a Walt Disney production it is directed by Mira Nair (Monsoon Wedding) and has a much grittier realism than most of Disney’s films. It is based on the true story of Phiona Mutesi (Madina Nalwanga), an impoverished and illiterate girl selling corn in rural Uganda who becomes an international chess champion.

She is coached by Robert Katende (David Oyelowo of Selma), a Christian youth worker who is in charge of his church’s sports ministry. He discovers that some of the village youth are so poor they dare not play soccer, because they cannot afford the hospital costs of a broken bone. So he starts a chess club for them and Phiona is attracted to it.

The church also provides temporary housing for her family and eventually schooling for both Phiona and her younger brother. The role of the church in this film is very positive indeed.

There are plenty of obstacles along the way including Phiona’s mother (Lupita Nyong’o of 12 Years a Slave), and Phiona herself when she becomes too self-assured.

While the slum conditions are appalling, and only made worse during the devastating rainy season, there is also a glimpse of some elite schools in Africa and the temptation of materialism after all the grinding poverty.

Rated PG for parental guidance, Queen of Katwe came out in 2016 but is now available on Netflix. It received an excellent rating of 93% on Rotten Tomatoes, a website that calculates both critical acclaim and audience approval. Because the Ugandan English will sound heavily accented to North American ears, it might best be screened with English subtitles.


A United Kingdom

David Oyelowo also stars in A United Kingdom (2017), rated NR. This film seems to have slipped through the theatres without gaining the audience attention it deserves and despite having top British-born Hollywood actors in the lead roles.

Oyelowo plays Seretse Khama, the king-in-waiting of what is today Botswana. While studying in England before his coronation he meets a London secretary, Ruth Williams (Rosamund Pike of Gone Girl), who volunteers at a church-sponsored club for international students.

They wed (without her father’s blessing) and their biracial marriage is challenged not only by their families and his countrymen but also by the British and South African governments. The year is 1947 and South Africa has just introduced its terrible apartheid laws. The last thing it wants is a biracial couple enthroned next door. Britain, meanwhile, wants to retain its access to South Africa’s uranium and gold.

The road ahead for the couple is tortuous. Oyelowo portrays Seretse’s quiet dignity while Pike has the delicate English rose beauty that belies her character’s incredible inner strength.  

Director Amma Asante also made the fine film Belle (2014), again based on a true story about racial prejudice but set during the slave trade era in England. Both A United Kingdom and Belle received an 83% rating from Rotten Tomatoes, but this critic would give A United Kingdom a much higher ranking.


Hidden Figures

Rated PG, Hidden Figures (2017) is the true story of Katherine G. Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe)--all brilliant African-American women working at NASA, whose brainpower helped launch astronaut John Glenn into orbit, the first American in space. The spunky trio faced a double prejudice of sexism and racism at NASA during the Jim Crow era but this did not stop them from being trailblazers.

They were known as ‘computers’ and were able to do the fast mathematical calculations needed just before IBM came on the scene. And they could envision the formulae required to not only put an astronaut into space but also to bring him safely home.

Jim Parsons, who plays Sheridan Cooper, one of the science nerds in the sitcom The Big Bang Theory, portrays Johnson’s resentful co-worker while Kevin Costner plays their boss who quickly recognizes and appreciates the woman who is shunned by all her male colleagues. 

The story is told with some archival film footage of the space race and the civil rights movement but possesses its own confident wit, warmth and style. Rotten Tomatoes awarded it 92% and it can be viewed on Netflix.

You do not need to play chess to enjoy Queen of Katwe or be good in math to delight in Hidden Figures. Nor do you need to open a history book or an atlas before viewing A United Kingdom. All three films are clever and compelling in their own right.  TAP

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