Director: Mira Nair
Cast: Lupita Nyong’o, David Oyelowo, Ntare Guma Mbaho Mwine, Madina Nalwanga
Running Time: 124 minutes
Release Date: 21st October
Adapted from the non-fiction book by Tim Crothers, Queen of Katwe tells the story of Phiona Mutesi (Madina Nalwanga), a young girl from the slum of Katwe in Kampala, Uganda, who became a chess prodigy after discovering the game in a missionary program run by Robert Katende (David Oyelowo). Though without any formal education — her widowed mother, Nakku (Lupita Nyong’o), cannot afford to send her to school so she and her younger brother have to spend their days selling vegetables in order to make ends meat — Phiona quickly develops a skill for the game, to the point where she can see eight moves ahead, and with Robert’s encouragement she begins to enter chess tournaments across the world, seeing that her abilities can offer her and her family a better life.
As a sports film, and a Disney one at that, Queen of Katwe offers very little surprises in terms of its plot. All the familiar tropes are here; the plucky underdog who has to overcome great obstacles, in this case extreme poverty, class and gender snobbery, in order to achieve her dream, all leading up to a feel good finale. It is a film that is designed to tug at the heartstrings, and in this regard it succeeds thanks in part to its charming performances and colourful direction from Mira Nair.
What is refreshing about Queen of Katwe is that for all the familiarity in terms of the story, Nair isn’t afraid to portray the realities of Phiona’s situation, both in terms of her life in Katwe and the implications of her becoming successful at the tournaments. While I’m certain that real life in Katwe is a lot more harsher than it is portrayed here, it doesn’t shy away from some of the issues that affect the people who live there, whether that is the living conditions that Phiona and her family have to endure — at one point a flood threatens to engulf her younger brother while her older sister gets involved in prostitution as a way to escape her life in Katwe. It is because of this that winning becomes more significant for Phiona and Nair does a good job of showing the different aspects of success, from the pressure that comes with a defeat and the anxiety and self-doubt that comes with it, to the effect that it has on a person and how difficult it can be to go back to the routine that one had before.
The central performances also add to its charm. Newcomer Nalwanga carries the film with ease, coming across as an engaging presence on screen. Oyelowo is reliably superb, adding many subtle layers to his character that could have easily come across as the tired trope of inspirational coach. Out of the main cast, it is Nyong’o who stands out the most. She rises above what could have been a stock character, showing the confliction of a woman who wants what is best for her children and for them to have a better life, whilst worrying that her daughter’s success will cause a separation between them as Phiona leaves her old life. Also adding to the film is the cast of young actors, most of who are from the area, bringing a sense of authenticity to the project.
For all the clichés and familiarity of the plot, Queen of Katwe is a movie whose beating heart is so pure that it is impossible not to like. It also deserves recognition for being a production that is set in Africa, a continent that is extremely underrepresented in Hollywood, while featuring a black cast, with a female lead to boot, that is aimed at a mainstream audience. In these worrying times of rising xenophobia, it is films like Queen of Katwe that offer just that little bit of hope and inspiration that we so badly need.