Battle of the Sexes

An Illusion Review by Joan Ellis

Battle of the Sexes

The significance of the 1973 Billie Jean King/Bobby Riggs tennis match wasn’t as obvious then as it is now. Those of us who watched it back then thought of it as a joke crafted by Riggs to promote himself after the end of his tennis career. King understood perfectly that if she won, her victory would be a big step forward in equal treatment for women in pay and in attitude. Her victory was a landmark step even though four decades later, women are still fighting for equality.

Men earned as much as eight times what women did in professional tennis and were astonished when anyone suggested that was unfair. Billie Jean King believed that if she could beat Riggs in this match that was infused with serious intent along with comic foolery she could change the treatment of women.

Emma Stone and Steve Carell create King, Riggs, and the tone of their time with marvelous perception. Riggs had won Wimbledon three times and hated every minute of trying to live a normal life after tennis. Steve Carell captures the feisty guy who loved gambling and drinking. He decided to challenge the women’s champion, beat her, and confirm that women must stay where they belong and he would wrap it all up as comedy.

Emma Stone is terrific as she captures both the determination and the doubts King feels as she accepts Riggs’ challenge. She wants equality in pay and recognition for women, two goals ridiculed by men in tennis and business. Ninety million viewers watched her beat Riggs in three sets. At stake was the beginning of the Women’s Liberation movement of that era.

New poignancy is added to the story by revelation of their private lives. King was married to a kind, supportive man (Austin Stowell) when she met Marilyn Barnett (Andrea Riseborough), an attentive hairdresser who became, against King’s better judgement, her lover. Riggs was married to Priscilla (Elizabeth Shue) a rich woman who supported him in the style he loved.

In a strong supporting cast, Natalie Morales creates Rosie Casals as a tough, outspoken ally for King’s decisions. Jessica McNamee gives us a nasty Margaret Court, and Bill Pullman creates a thoroughly unpleasant Jack Kramer who represents every man in the world who believes women belong in the kitchen and the bedroom. In a welcome addendum, we are given short, welcome statements about the turns their lives took after that match in 1973.

Though the battle starts with Riggs’ wrapping himself in a joke to recreate himself, the serious issues are all right there. Emma Stone is superb as she shows us the toll exacted on Billie Jean King as she made the world understand that women were about to emerge from the kitchen. We hear “Someday we will be free to be who we are and love who we love.” Forty some years later, that day has still not arrived. Jack Kramer would be pleased.

Film Critic : JOAN ELLIS
Film Title : Battle of the Sexes
Word Count : 496
Running time : 2:01
Rating : PG-13
Date : October 1, 2017


Queen of Katwe


An Illusion Review by Joan Ellis

Queen of Katwe

Queen of Katwe tells of the passage of a young Ugandan girl from poverty to chess championship. That unlikely journey demands the nuanced acting and strong direction that this movie delivers. It is full of fine performances including a towering one from Lupita Nyong’o who conveys the desperate need for the discipline that will allow her to guide her children to adulthood when they often have nothing to eat and all sleep on the floor.

Throughout the movie director Mira Nair gives us a rendering of a culture of poverty that stuns us to silence. The sheer numbers of people rummaging among the crowds for food, looking for ways to earn money and facing certain defeat while we sit comfortably in the theater is overwhelming. The heat, the hunger, the noise, the lack of hope.

In the middle of this crushing culture, single mother Nakku (Lupite Nyong’o) struggles to keep her family alive in their fragile shelter. She is harsh with them to the point of alienating all of us who are watching until we gradually begin to understand that it is her way of holding her family together, of protecting them from the dangers that surround them. She is trying desperately to help them find a way out, to educate them in a school and in her home so they will one day be able to escape their poverty.

Phiona (Madina Nalwanga) falls under the guiding hand of a kind, thoughtful man named Robert (David Oyelowo) who is trying to help children by teaching them to play chess in a tent. After a relatively short time, Phiona begins to soar and Robert asks, “Where did you learn those moves? Did you read one of my books?” Her reply: “I don’t know how to read.”

We are treated to a long and lovely experience of watching Robert guide his charges through tournaments in alien lands. His tender encouragement and understanding as they adjust to the places of plenty they had never imagined is touching. And then Phiona returns to a proud mother and her family still sleeping on the floor in their shelter. She watches her mother light a candle so her newly educated daughter can read by the light while Robert says, “Your children are blessed because they have a mother who never gave up on them.”

This beautiful story is never sentimentalized. It washes over audiences with all its rough edges as Phiona struggles through the emotional and physical pitfalls of her upward climb through different worlds. As fine as the cast is, the towering performance comes from Lupita Nyong’o as Phiona’s mother. Against the impossible odds of their immediate surroundings, she imposes the harsh discipline that will protect her children and allow them to rise if ever they get the chance.

A final salute is due to Disney who made the film. We can be forgiven for expecting they might have made it of sugar. They didn’t.

Film Critic : JOAN ELLIS
Film Title : Queen of Katwe
Word count : 496
Running time : 2:04
Rating : PG
Date : October 23, 2016