It’s a common theme in movies that sports or other activities can change someone’s life or circumstances. That’s the premise behind the new Disney movie Queen of Katwe. Based on a true story, Madina Nalwanga plays Phiona, a young girl growing up in the slums of Katwe, Uganda. She, like many of those around her, is struggling along with her family, including her mother Nakku Harriet (Lupita Nyong’o) both for basic survival and to go to school to hopefully rise out of her situation and make something of her life.
One day she’s introduced to the game of chess by her teacher Robert Katende (David Oyelowo) and a whole new world is opened up to her. She takes to the game as if she’s been studying all her life, quickly besting everyone around her. Katende encourages her to make the most of her talents and so Phiona is off not just to regional championships but also other matches around the world, where she quickly proves her skills and becomes an inspiration to everyone back home as well as those she meets along her journey.
The movie’s first poster is just wonderful. We see the top of Nalwanga’s head as she’s looking down toward the ground. Arranged on the top of her head are chess pieces and various other things that are presumably part of her culture and life, things like clothespins, crops and more. It’s simple, a bit artistic and sells the nature of the story really well.
The next poster was much more in line with the “Inspiring Live-Action Disney Movie” genre to which it belongs. To that end it shows the faces of the three leads, all looking vaguely off-camera and off in the distance against a burnt sienna background meant to invoke a sunset on a hot, hazy day. Just visible in the background are the outlines of the buildings of the village they come from and looking to leave. In front of that is the silhouette of Phiona walking along a series of chess pieces like they’re stairs.
It’s an interesting study in contrasts between the two posters. The first one revels in the heritage of the characters whose stories are being told, filled with parts of their lives and other elements that make it seem very unique. The second looks like a variation on the one-sheet for the Disney’s The Kid, a Bruce Willis vehicle from 2000 no one remembers, or the poster for Million Dollar Arm from a few years ago. In other words, it’s about as generically “inspiring” as you could possibly get.
The main trailer introduces us to Phiona, who dreams of big things in her small, poor village in Uganda. When she goes to school one day she meets the teacher Robert who introduces her to chess. Encouraged by him and her mother and the others in her village she goes on to become a champion in her country and beyond.
This one is all about setting the mood and tone for the movie. Yes, it’s a variation on the “chess is a metaphor for life” theme, something that’s reinforced by some of Oyelowo’s dialogue, but that doesn’t stop is from genuinely bringing a tear to the eye. It’s an emotional story and that comes through loud and clear.
Online and Social
You get a nice big version of the key art when you load the official website for the movie. Scrolling down the page a bit and you’re able to view the trailer, which is totally worth rewatching.
After that is a collection of “Videos” that includes an Alicia Keys music video, featurettes on the story and cast and more. A lengthy synopsis follows and provides a great amount of detail as to the story and the characters whose arcs we’ll be following.
That’s about it for the site, though there’s a Facebook page that offers more videos and photos to help raise awareness of the movie.
Advertising and Cross-Promotions
The TV spots, like this one, took varying approaches to selling the movie. Some just used dialogue and scenes from the movie to sell it using a similar arc to the actual story, others were more contrived, adding traditional trailer-type dialogue to the footage and using that to explain the emotional journey of the characters for the audience. You can likely guess which works better.
I haven’t seen any online advertising, but it’s safe to assume Disney has done at least some, as well as some outdoor billboard, to support the movie’s release.
Media and Publicity
The first officially released still from the movie showed Nyong’o alongside Nawanga.
Nyong’o talked quite a bit about how she got involved in the project, how the script she first read made her cry and more.
The movie was among those which debuted or otherwise screened at the 2016 Toronto International Film Festival.
Nyong’o came back to talk more about her connection with Nair and how she connected with the character and got to know who she was and how she would live, talk and so on.
There’s a good movie that’s being sold here, even if the marketing is filled with the kind of uplifting Disney cliches that threaten to wear it down and shave off all the rough edges. This is a Mira Nair film, after all, and it can’t all be soft lighting and inspiring music swells. But if there are still gritty elements to the story, which should legitimately have them, they aren’t super-evident in this campaign.
What is on display are the actors. I can’t think of another campaign in recent memory that seems to be so focused on the actors involved, even other indie dramas. Both Nyong’o and Oyelowo are well represented here, as is newcomer Nalwanga. The marketing not only wants to sell us an inspiring true story but it wants to do so by highlighting the performances of the actors involved, most of whom have racked up critical accolades and box-office success. They’re positioned as the main reason to see the movie, which makes a lot of sense.