Each day this month (assuming I don’t get busy or bored!), I’ll reflect on a tiny sliver of pop culture that I enjoyed or appreciated this year — scenes, shots, gestures, verses, sights, sounds, moments. Today: two movies that ought to have been huge hits, but weren’t.
Some movies seem destined to falter at the box office — they’re bad, they’re lazy, they’re weird, they lack star power, they’re in another language. It’s often a shame to watch those movies’ inevitably meager box-office returns, but you saw the disappointment coming, so it’s easier to manage and rationalize.
But other movies seem tailor-made for runaway blockbuster success and yet struggle to find it. Often, you can blame the marketing, or the distribution, or an accident of fate. The best you can hope for is a fruitful run on home video and streaming.
Queen of Katwe is one that can be blamed, at least partially, on the marketing and distribution. The inspirational sports drama came from Walt Disney Pictures, which was a little busy this year turning gargantuan profits on guaranteed smash hits including Finding Dory, Captain America: Civil War, Doctor Strange and Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. The studio dumped Katwe into a death slot at the end of September, then opted for a counterintuitive rollout — the movie played in a handful of urban markets for a week before broadening out to a general theatrical release the following Friday. The consequences were easy to foresee: Most publications ran their reviews and features on the movie in the week leading up to its theatrical premiere, and most of the personality publicity like interviews on talk shows happened then as well, leaving the mass audience that might have been compelled to see it on the week of its expansion with no prominent headlines or promotional appearances to stir their interest.
I’d rather blame the movie’s disappointing box office performance on these factors, rather than the possibility that some portion of the potential audience was turned off from seeing a movie about black chess players in Uganda. (That probably had something to do with it, though. Ugh.) From an activist standpoint, Disney should have tried harder to make this movie work, if only to convince the entertainment industry that movies from traditionally white genres can succeed while engaging in the world’s diversity.
They also should have tried harder because this movie is a well-crafted, poignant drama that’s open in its manipulative attempts at inspiration but also succeeds in delivering it. Lupita Nyong’o and David Oyelowo give stirring performances as the mother of the title chess prodigy and her coach respectively, and Madina Nalwanga stuns with her naturalism in the lead role. Nair captures a distinct sense of place within the poor Ugandan village of Katwe, and the movie finds ways to make the act of moving chess pieces on a board compelling. Sports movies about unlikely heroes who triumph over adversity are a dime a dozen, but this one is terrific, and deserves a look.
I already praised Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping earlier this year, but I’m similarly disappointed that this one couldn’t find an audience. It’s very funny, with several dozen celebrity cameos and numerous masterpiece sequences that will take their place as modern classics in the years to come. (A sex jam about Osama bin Laden! Seal vs. the wolves! “Equal Rights” feat. P!nk!) Moreover, the movie was marketed to death. Exhibit A: a promotional appearance on The Voice.
Exhibit B: An SNL sketch inspired by “Finest Girl,” featuring Vanessa Bayer, Fred Armisen, Jay Pharoah and Beck Bennett.
The total combined box office gross of these two movies is roughly equivalent to what Rogue One made on its thirteenth day in theaters. This business is brutal, but we consumers don’t have to succumb to it. Popstar and Katwe are available for rental and purchase as we speak. Don’t wait.