The Feel-Good Movie of the Year at Tower

by Chris Narloch

Sacramento’s Tower Theatre is the go-to destination for movie lovers right now, as the terrific film “Hell or High Water” -- about two bank-robbing brothers (Chris Pine and Ben Foster) being hunted by a Texas ranger played by Jeff Bridges -- hangs on for yet another week at the historic theatre on Broadway. That movie probably won’t be playing too much longer, so see it while you can.

If you have seen “Hell or High Water” already, there are two other new films currently playing at Tower, including Nate Parker’s much-publicized slavery drama “The Birth of a Nation” and one of my favorite films of the year so far, “Queen of Katwe.”

Queen of Katwe

This may very well be the feel-good movie of the year -- a surprisingly entertaining and very moving dramatization of a true story about a young girl in Uganda who became a chess champion.

Living in the slum of Katwe in Kampala, Uganda, is a constant struggle for 10-year-old Phiona (Madina Nalwanga) and her family, but her world changes one day when she meets Robert Katende (David Oyelowo), a missionary who teaches children how to play chess.

Phiona becomes fascinated with the game and soon becomes a top player under Katende's guidance, despite the initial objections of her strict single mother (Lupita Nyong’o).

The girl’s success in local competitions and tournaments opens the door to a bright future and a golden chance to escape from a life of poverty.

Oyelowo and Nyong’o are superb, as always, and “Queen of Katwe” doesn’t shy away from showing the painful effects of poverty, as well as the possibility of transcending it.

The movie’s young heroine has brains and talent (and people who love and help her), but she works hard for what she achieves, which turns the film into a vibrant and positive success story about people of color that moviegoers of any color can take inspiration from.

The Birth of a Nation

If “Queen of Katwe” is the feel-good film of the year, then this shockingly violent and depressing drama about a slave rebellion is the feel-bad movie of the year.

“The Birth of a Nation” is based on the story of Nat Turner, a black American slave who led the only effective, sustained slave rebellion in U.S. history, in Southampton County, Virginia, in 1831. 

The film is co-written, co-produced and directed by Nate Parker (in his directorial debut) and stars Parker as Turner, with Armie Hammer, Aja Naomi King, Jackie Earle Haley, Penelope Ann Miller and Gabrielle Union in supporting roles.

The movie’s story has so much resonance and relevance in an age of “Black Lives Matter” protests over racially-charged deaths involving police that I really wish that “The Birth of a Nation” was a great film rather than what it actually is – an uneven and confused attempt to turn Nat Turner in to a heroic figure for our troubled times.

Yes, violence begets violence, and you can understand the revenge committed by victims of institutional racism, but when Nat Turner finally snaps and goes on his bloody rampage, he ceases to be a sympathetic movie protagonist. Which would be okay if Parker’s vision of Turner’s story was more complex and challenging.

Instead, Parker chooses to bathe his hero in heavenly white light in one scene, a ridiculous and clichéd “movie moment” that trivializes an important and disturbing period in our country’s history.

That said, the movie does have fine performances and a number of scenes of great power, including ones that are especially sensitive to how vulnerable and victimized black women were under slavery.

Despite those pluses, I can’t really recommend the film. This particular story may just be too complicated and difficult to be captured in a traditional Hollywood feature film, even one as ambitious as “The Birth of a Nation.”

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