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Hot Movie Takes – “Queen of Katwe”

April 30, 2017 Leave a comment

Hot Movie Takes  – “Queen of Katwe”

©By Leo Adam Biga, Author of “Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film” 

 

Image result for queen of katwe

 

 

India native and longtime American resident Mira Nair deserves to be mentioned in the same breath with the great English-language filmmakers of the last quarter-century, but I’m afraid that because she’s a woman you’re unlikely to know the name. I have long been an admirer of her work (“Salaam Bombay!,” “Mississippi Masala,” “Monsoon Wedding”) and my esteem just grew after watching her “Queen of Katwe” on Netflix. This true story set in the Katwe slum of Kampala, Uganda follows the journey of a girl who rises to international grandmaster chess champion with the loving support of a coach who recognizes her talent and mentors her to excel despite the severe challenges she faces at home. Living in the kind of poverty Americans don’t know, Phiona is one of four children being raised by a single mother whose strict principles are meant to keep her family together and her kids free from exploitation. The mom doesn’t trust the coach at first but comes to see that chess may indeed be a way out for Phiona, whose prodigy abilities eventually take her far from home. Once Phiona has a glimpse and taste of life outside the slum, it causes her to rebel, for a time, before she realizes that what she wants more than anything is to win enough competitive chess prizes to open up doors that will enable her family to escape the daily threats and struggles for survival that make dreaming a luxury that can’t be afforded by most residents. Phiona must overcome self-doubt and learn some tough learn lessons in order to mature enough to achieve her dream but in the end there’s nothing that can deter her. Against all oddes, she becomes an inspiration to her community and her nation. And as the grace notes at the end reveal, Phiona and the other prinicpal charactrs depicted in the film are no longer surviving but thriving and still inspiring others.

This 2016 co-production of Disney and ESPN films is based on a book by the same title by Tom Crothers, who adapted the story to the screen with William Wheleer. Madina Nalwanga is outstanding as Phiona. David Oyelowo is perfectly cast as her coach Robert Katende, who in real life has gone on to start hundreds of chess clubs throughout Uganda. Lupita Nyong’o is great at Phiona’s mother Nakku Harriet. The cast from top to bottom is very good and Nair found many of the children in the film in the slum of Katwe where most of the picture was shot. Having visited some Kampala’s slums myself, I can tell you she shows you just as it is: an unending sea of disheveled shanties pressed up against each other; rutted dirt roads; gullies for sewers; men, women and children on foot lugging by hand jerry cans full of water or balancing atop their heads provisions for home or goods to sell at market; boda-bodas appearing out of nowhere; markets jammed with people, stalls and vehicles; and rainstorms that create rivers of debris and detritus. And everywhere, the colors of the rainbow in the clothes people wear, in the over-laden market stalls, in the red dirt and the green countryside.

Nair also shows the sharp discrepancy between the lives of the slum children, many of whom do not attend school, and those of the privileged children at private schools. Unfortunately, slum kids there are looked down on and made to feel less than there just as they are here. In my visit to Uganda I met many community organizers just like Robert Katende working to improve the lives of children and their families.

 

 

Image result for mira nair

Mira Nair

 

The filmmaker knows Uganda because she lives part of every year there. It’s where her husband Mahmood Mamdani was born and raised until he and his family were expelled during the Ida Amin revolution.

Nair, who comes from a documentary film background, has a knack for realistically portraying ghetto life in her dramatic features. You won’t see stereotypical images or characterizations in her work but rather carefully observed humanity. Her “Salaam Bombay!” won international acclaim for its dramatic story of street children. Most of the kids in the film actually lived on the streets of Bombay. Similarly, her “Queen of Katwe” is filled with people who live and work in the very environment she depicts.

There are a several Nair feature films I’ve never seen that I need to seek out – “The Perez Family,” “Kama Sutra: A Tale of Love,” “Vanity Fair,” “The Namesake” and “The Reluctant Fundamentalist” – because she never disappoints with her humanistic explorations of the human heart.

 

 
Queen of Katwe - Official Trailer

Queen of Katwe – Official Trailer2:25YouTube · 2,381,000+ views

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z4l3-_yub5A

 

So, why isn’t she and her work better known?

Hollywood remains a mail-dominated industry and that extends across production (both behind the scenes and in front of the camera), finance, marketing and even to those who write about the movies. Male filmmakers like Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese, David O. Russell, Ridley Scott. Quentin Tarantino and Christopher Nolan are lionized by an apparatus that makes superstars and household names of certain directors, almost always male directors. The handful or so of women directors who have achieved some wide notoriety, such as Kathryn Bigelow, Jane Campion, Julie Taymor and Barbra Streisand, get their moment in the sun for a year or two, surrounding a certain project, and then disappear again. Women directors don’t enjoy the same kind of popular branding, mythologizing and following that men get. In the annals of film history, I can only think of two dozen or so women directors of English-language films who have enjoyed anything like a sustainable and highly praised career despite doing very good, even brilliant work:

 

Dorothy Arzner

Ida Lupino

Shirley Clarke

Barbara Loden

Lee Grant

Joan Micklin Silver

Martha Coolidge

Penelope Spheeris

Amy Heckerling

Gillian Armstrong

Penny Marshall

Mira Nair

Barbra Streisand

Kathryn Bigelow

Jane Campion

Julie Dash

Kasi Lemmons

Nora Ephron

Tamara Jenkins

Betty Thomas

Nancy Meyers

Jodie Foster

Diane Keaton

Julie Taymor

Sofia Coppola

Mary Harron

 

One of the above is Omaha native Joan Micklin Silver, whose sublime body of work (“Hester Street” “Between the Lines,” “Chilly Scenes of Winter,” “Crossing Delancey,” “Loverboy”) is sadly neglected.

Only one woman, Kathryn Bigelow, has ever won the Oscar for Best Director. Not many more have been nominated in that category. You can bet there have been many deserving women, including women of color, who have been passed over. Mira Nair is one of them.

Mira Nair – IMDb

http://m.imdb.com/name/nm0619762/

 

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Hot Movie Takes Monday – ‘Mississippi Masala’


 

 

Hot Movie Takes Monday – “Mississippi Masala”

©By Leo Adam Biga, Author of “Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film”

 

Over the weekend I revisited one of my favorite films from the early 1990s – Mira Nair’s “Mississippi Masala.” I remembered it as one of the richest cross cultural dramas of that or any era and upon re-watching it on YouTube my impressions from then have been confirmed.

The story concerns an Indian family exiled from Uganda during Idi Amin’s reign of terror. They were forced to leave everything they owned and loved in terms of home, The patriarch of the family was born and raised in Uganda and lived there his entire life, building a life and career that made him feel at one with a nation his people had been brought to by the British to build railways. Though his ancestral roots are not of that continent, he identifies as African first, Indian second. The family ends up in Mississippi, owning and operating a motel and a liquor store. The patriarch, Jay, and his wife are the parents of an only child, Meena, who was a little girl when her left Uganda as refugees. When we meet her again she is a lovely, single 24 year old woman and still devoted daughter but strains under her parents’ overprotectiveness and their insisting she adhere to strict traditions concerning matrimonial matches and such. Those traditions aren’t such a good fit in America.

Also weighing heavily on Meena is the burden her father carries from being torn from his homeland. He can’t let that severing go. For years he’s petitioned the Ugandan government for a hearing to plead his case for his property and assets to be restored. He is a haunted figure. Part of what haunts him is the way he rebuked his black Ugandan friend from childhood, Okelo, when Amin’s military police rounded up foreigners for arrest, torture, deportation. Okelo is a devoted family friend who is like a brother to Jay and a grandfather to Meena. When Jay is arrested for making anti-Amiin remarks in a broadcast TV interview, Okelo bribes officials to free him. He tries to convince Jay that there is no future for him in Uganda anymore. Okelo tells him, “Africa is for black Africans.” He says it not out of malice but love. Jay is deeply hurt. He can’t accept this new reality but he realizes he and his family have no choice but to flee if they are to remain alive. Jay leaves without saying goodbye to Okelo. Meena sees and feels her father’s bitter anger and her beloved Okelo’s broken heart.

 

 

Grown-up Meena, played by Sarita Choudhury, lives with her parents in a diverse Mississippi town where they are the minority. A meet-cute accident brings together Meena and a young African-American man, Demetrius, played by Denzel Washington. He’s a devoted son who owns his own carpet cleaning business. He’s immediately attracted to Meena but at first he pays attention to her to get back at his ex, who’s in town and intent on belittling him. But things progress to the point where he and Meena spark the start of a real relationship. She meets his family and is embraced by them. Then the prejudice her extended family and community feels for blacks gets in the way and things get messy. As it always is with race, there are misunderstandings, assumptions and fears that cause rifts. Meena’s father is reminded of his own close-mindedness – that Indians in Africa wouldn’t allow their children to marry blacks. Demetrius and his circle must confront their own racist thinking.

Everyone in this film has their own wounds and stones of racism to deal with. No one is immune. No one gets off the hook. We’re all complicit. We all have something to learn from each other. It’s what we do with race that matters.

The theme of being strangers in homelands runs rife through the film. Just as African-Americans in Mississippi were enslaved and disenfranchised and often cut off from their African heritage, Indian exiles like Meena’s family are strangers wherever they go and distant from their own ancestral homeland of India.

Meena finally asserts her independence and her father finally gets his hearing. His bittersweet return to Uganda fills him with regret and longing, ironically enough, for America, which he realizes has indeed become his new home. The simple, sublime ending finds Jay in a street market where residents of the new Uganda revel in music and dance that are a mix of African and Western influences. As he watches the joy of a people no longer living in oppression, a black infant held by a man touches his face and Jay ends up holding the boy close to him, feeling the warmth and tenderness of unconditional love and trust.

 

 

 

There’s a great montage sequence near the end where the diverse currents of India, the American Deep South and Africa converge in images that some hot harmonica blues cover. By the end, the movie seems to tell us that home is a matter of the heart and identity is a state of mind and none of it need keep us apart if we don’t let it.

I saw the film when it first came out and though it spoke to me I was still a decade away from being in my first interracial relationship. I was already very curious about the possibilities of such a relationship and I was also acutely attuned to racial stereotypes and prejudices because of where and how I grew up. Seeing the film again today, as a 15 year veteran of mixed race couplings and a 21 year veteran of writing about race, it has even more resonance than before. And having visited Uganda in 2015 I now have a whole new personal connection to the film because of having been to that place so integral to the story.

This was the second movie by Nair I saw. The first, “Salaam Bombay,” was a hit on the festival circuit and that’s where I saw it – an outdoor screening at the Telluride Film Festival. Years later I saw another of her features, “Monsoon Wedding.” I still need to catch up with two of her most acclaimed later films, “The Perez Family” and “The Namesake.”

Watch the “Mississippi Masala” trailer at:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kSrPYziDGW8
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