Outside of the setting and the age of the competitors, Disney’s latest live-action work, Queen of Katwe, is structured using many of the same beats as the most of their recent sports dramas, such as The Rookie, Invincible, Glory Road, and McFarland, USA. I don’t lob that comment at the film as a criticism, but much like the game it glorifies—in this case, chess—it’s not difficult to anticipate the story’s next few moves well in advance. Not unlike the New Zealand-made The Dark Horse from earlier this year, Queen of Katwe illustrates how chess can not only be used as a means of corralling young people to keep them out of trouble in underprivileged communities, but also teach them analytical skills and the means to open up parts of the mind that might otherwise have been left untapped.
This true-life story, set on the streets of Uganda, tells the story of 10-year-old Phiona Mutesi (newcomer Madina Nalwanga), who lives with her family in the slums of Katwe. Her mother, Harriet (Lupita Nyong’o) is barely able to keep the family from going hungry, which forces all of the children to sell corn in the local market to earn any money. Her younger brother Brian (Martin Kabanza) is fiercely loyal, but simply too young to be much of a bread winner, while older sister Night (Taryn “Kay” Kyaze) has found a man whom she believes is her ticket out of poverty, but her mother is fairly certain he’s using her. As she did with her first film, the nearly 30-year-old Salaam Bombay!, director Mira Nair (Monsoon Wedding, The Namesake, Mississippi Masala) captures the hopes, desires and realities of the impoverished masses, and with Queen of Katwe, the world starts to seem a whole lot bigger when Phiona discovers chess.
Peaking into a chess club run by former soccer player (he still occasionally plays when he needs money) turned youth minister (he and his wife regularly take in stray youngsters) Robert Katende (David Oyelowo, who played Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in Selma), Phiona is intrigued by the game but mocked by the kids in the class because she looks poor, with a smell to match. She cleans herself up and returns to Katende’s lessons, where he discovers she has a knack for the game. Naturally, her mother is suspicious, but her brother (who is also in the class) is instrumental in convincing mom that everything is on the up-and-up.
As a first-time actor, Nalwanga is a true wonder to watch. She has an open, expressive and naturally inquisitive face, with a glorious smile that brings it all together. As you might expect, Phiona’s road to making a name for herself in the chess world is not easy. Because she is poor, she cannot afford to pay for entry fees and travel, but Katende finds the money for her. Obstacles also come in the form of her overly protective mother as well as players from other parts of Africa and the world, and she is only barely able to contain her despair on the rare occasion when she loses. The movie quickly becomes a coming-of-age piece about someone learning to accept a different level of defeat than she grew up understanding. To maintain a PG rating, Nair and company pare down some of the inherent dangers to the family in their rough environment, especially when they end up living on the streets for time. But the approach doesn’t cut into the film’s many graces, beginning with the handful of exceptional performers.
Queen of Katwe kicks into gear when Phiona begins to travel to take part in chess tournaments. She’s exposed to kids her age with money, and it makes her angry at her mother for having nothing. But Phiona also learns that there are people out there who don’t lose gracefully or who will bully her because of where she’s from and how she dresses. But that doesn’t stop her from becoming a hero and role model to the people of Katwe. What saves the film from being crushed by the weight of its own nobility is an almost total lack of sentimentality. Phiona is not an obvious heroine despite her raw talent; she’s full of self-doubt and is eager to quit at the first sign of defeat. That doesn’t keep screenwriter William Wheeler (adapting sportswriter Tim Crothers’ ESPN Magazine article and later, an expanded book) from using chess as the ultimate metaphor for life, struggle, and appreciating delayed gratification.
The film’s two-hour running time may be a bit of an endurance test at times for some, but Nair keeps things moving along by giving us updates on the sister’s trials with her boyfriend and Harriet’s ongoing hardships with money. Still, the movie is at its absolute finest when it zeroes in on Phiona and Katende and their never-ending lessons about chess, life, and the competitive environment. Subtlety isn’t Queen of Katwe’s strongest suit, but it has a big, magnificent heart that most audience’s are going to deeply enjoy being near.
Nair schools us both on the Ugandan culture and on the frame of mind it takes to become a potential chess prodigy and master. Most importantly, she gives us a glimpse at events in a place we rarely seen on the big screen (with no small thanks to cinematographer Sean Bobbitt, who regularly works with filmmaker Steve McQueen), and that’s significant. There’s nothing inherently wrong with working within a formula, especially if you couch the story in an environment that we’ve never seen. It makes the old seen new (or newish), and it makes Queen of Katwe a lovely discovery.