Inevitable clichés aside, “Queen of Katwe” is an inspiring, uplifting account of a young girl’s persistence to play chess and become more than a pawn to her poverty-stricken surroundings.
10-year-old Phiona Mutesi [Madina Nalwanga] constantly endeavors the grievances that come with living in Katwe, a local slum in Kampala, Uganda, with her family. Everything changes when she stumbles across Robert Katende [David Oyelowo], a kind-hearted missionary that finds comfort in teaching children how to play chess.
Enamored by her determination, Katende takes Phiona under his wing as his protégé. Knocking out one local championship after the other, Phiona sets her eyes on the big prize, one that would endow her with an opportunity to lift her family out of poverty.
While riding on a broken-down miniature bus, a group of underprivileged slum children sing songs to pass the time. Upon their arrival at the college, they all look out the window, viewing the vast campus through a chain-link fence.
In another movie, this wonderfully subdued moment would be accompanied by a harmonious score. Here, the children fall silent. Unaware of luxuries, they don’t know how to react; they’re dumbfounded. When greeted with their rooms, they choose to sleep on the floor; it’s all they know. This is “Queen of Katwe.”
In a surprising turn of events, Disney hasn’t gone to the lengths that they usually have toward marketing one of their “based on a true story” narratives. It’s truly a shame. With an established autrice (Mira Nair) at the helm, “Queen of Katwe” deserves better.
In the ending credits, each actor stands opposite of their real-life counterpart, and in that moment, it clicked. This was more than another “based on a true story” cash-in.
Where many people call out for a diverse selection of films within the industry, “Queen of Katwe” acts as a beautiful response. Not only does Mira Nair direct some of the best written female characters of the year, she offers insight into a culture rarely depicted in the modern cineplex.
David Oyelowo is the closest we have to an audience surrogate. Through this heartwarming human being, we see what he sees. When offered a position that could potentially take care of his family, the first thing he thinks of are the slum children.
He owns a nice home with enough food to last a lifetime and yet, he thinks of others before himself. When his students doubt themselves before a local match, in the moment, he conjures up a humorous parable that lifts their youthful spirits. For what this scene could have been, it comes across as genuine rather than manipulative.
As expected, Lupita Nyong’o is tremendous as a strong-willed, yet fragile single mother that craves the best for her children, but struggles at every turn to keep life in-check.
Her scenes involve the exploration of such adult themes as class discrimination, prostitution, poverty, foreclosure, etc. that seem out of Disney’s wheelhouse, and yet, they’re wonderfully subtle, never beating the audience over the head with their importance. Mira Nair lets the drama play out for itself, allowing those watching to soak up the emotion.
Cinematographer Sean Bobbitt frames nearly every moment as if the audience is a fly on the wall. After a while, you inhabit a living, breathing environment and the people in it. It’s challenging to define Madina Nalwanga’s presence as a simple performance because she’s so in tune with the narrative that she metamorphosizes into Phiona, embodying her youth and naivete.
The same can be said for most of Katende’s students, who each have their brief individual moments to shine, especially a devastated young girl that comically weeps, “She stole my Queen, she stole my Queen!” after her not-so-glorious defeat at a local competition.
Alongside the successes of “Sully” and “Deepwater Horizon,” “Queen of Katwe” proves that under the right circumstances, the phrase “based on a true story” can mean more than manipulative tearjerkers.
Some clichés are inevitable, but this was a smart showcase of how to execute them correctly. At the end of the day, many will walk out with big smiles on their faces. I know I did.
Matt Bilodeau can be contacted at email@example.com