Queen of Katwe
Unfamiliar setting and offbeat subject make this sporting drama better than much of its competition
Queen of Katwe (2016)
Directed by Mira Nair
Cast: Madina Nalwanga, Lupita Nyong’o, David Oyelowo
Disney and ESPN join their brand-name forces in order to bring us exactly the sort of uplifting, sports-inspired tale you would expect in Queen of Katwe. Thanks to a wealth of talent in front of and behind the camera, however, what could have been an overly familiar, paint-by-numbers affair is rendered deeply humanistic and emotionally affecting.
Disney is no stranger to the manipulative power of based-
Newcomer Madina Nalwanga stars as Phiona, a stubborn young lady living in Katwe, a sprawling slum surrounding Uganda’s capital of Kampala. Phiona’s father passed away when she was quite young, leaving her younger brothers and older sister to be raised by an impoverished single mother (Lupita Nyong’o in a tough, beautiful performance). One day, while selling corn out on the street to support her family, Phiona stumbles across a chess camp led by empathetic coach Robert Katende (David Oyelowo). Robert is an engineer by degree, but the rough economic conditions in Uganda have left him with minimal career prospects. To make ends meet for his wife and baby, he’s taken a part-time job with the local sports ministry. He’s tasked with setting up soccer teams for the local kids, but many parents—fearing injuries and expensive doctor bills—refuse to let their kids participate. So Robert organizes a chess team instead.
Director Mira Nair (famed for her films Salaam Bombay!, Mississippi Masala and Monsoon Wedding) is no stranger to presenting foreign culture to American cinematic audiences. Though the film contains plenty of feel-good moments, Nair’s vision of modern-day Uganda doesn’t shy away from the harsher truths.
Curious about a game that makes Queens the most powerful of pieces, Phiona noses her way into Robert’s class. Many of the other kids tease her, calling attention to her ragged clothes and poor hygiene. But Phiona isn’t the type to back down. She does everything she can to earn a spot on Robert’s chess team and is soon beating the boys at their own game (a turn of events that upsets them to no end). Naturally, Phiona proves preternaturally adept at the game. Within a year or two, she’s looking at international tournaments. Could this be her ticket out of the slums? Or are her age, gender, income level, lack of education and country of origin one too many hurdles to overcome?
Director Mira Nair (famed for her films Salaam Bombay!, Mississippi Masala and Monsoon Wedding) is no stranger to presenting foreign culture to American cinematic audiences. Though the film contains plenty of feel-good moments, Nair’s vision of modern-day Uganda doesn’t shy away from the harsher truths. The film is alternately beautiful and ugly. Shot onsite in Katwe, it is vividly rendered and unshakably authentic.
At the end of the day, chess is not what you’d call the most cinematic of exercises. Most chess-based movies—2014’s rigidly detailed Pawn Sacrifice, for example—simply involve pasty white men staring at tiny knights and furrowing their brows. The script for Queen of Katwe does milk the game for what few metaphors it can (easy stuff like “plan ahead” and “never surrender too soon”). But Nair wisely concentrates less on the mechanics of the game and more on the film’s disarming heroine and her uphill struggle.
Phiona lives in a world of grinding poverty. Every day is spent trying to save her family from starvation and keep a roof of some kind over their heads. While chess certainly allows her to see a larger world, there’s a lingering question of whether it will ever actually lift Phiona and her family out of their grim circumstances. Is it crueler to leave the girl in her ghetto or to expose her to a bigger, more beautiful world she may never achieve?
Aside from its strong female protagonist and its refreshingly non-caucasian cast, you can’t really argue that Queen of Katwe adds something entirely new to the heartwarming “cheer for the underdog” genre. But it does what it does with polish, precision and skill. Even the now-standard closing credits, complete with cameos by the real-life people who inspired the characters, are rife with emotion here. The bones of this film you’ve seen before in countless iterations involving countless sports. But if you’re game, there’s compassion and intelligence at work in this film’s easily accessible mixture of comedy, drama and competition.