Overview: Queen of Katwe is the story of a girl living in rural Uganda who is introduced to chess and ultimately becomes an international chess champion. Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures; 2016; Rated PG; 124 minutes.
For Love of the Game: Queen of Katwe, on a structural level, is akin to a sports film in many ways. It’s ultimately a hero’s journey with a basic premise of success from unlikely beginnings. Directed by Mira Nair and written by William Wheeler, Queen of Katwe adheres to the basic formula of this kind of film, but does commit to elements that make it stand out, namely its setting and commitment to its characters.
Queen of Katwe is colorful, vibrant, and lively, from its visuals to its soundtrack to its costuming. The commitment to the visual details of Ugandan culture, from the rural villagers of Katwe to the crisply uniformed students of the local private academy, is delightful.
The characters are just as vibrant. Newcomer Madina Nalwanga plays Phiona Mutesi, a hardworking and often serious young woman committed to her job selling maize in Katwe. She is introduced to chess and takes to it quickly, beating the other young children in her community. Phiona’s mother Nakku Harriet (Lupita Nyong’o) has reservations, and is protective of her children. Nakku is a stubborn but sensitive young woman struggling to support her children after the death of her husband. Lupita Nyong’o is, unsurprisingly, fantastic, and her performance is emotionally resonant at every turn.
Phiona’s chess coach and figure of guidance is Robert Katende, an aspiring engineer, played by David Oyelowo. He starts a chess group in Katwe, the members of which he calls his “pioneers.” His investment in Phiona and the city of Katwe’s success is sweet and genuine. Robert’s wife, Sara Katende (Esther Tebandeke) is also a standout character, and serves as a nurturing figure for Phiona, serving as her reading tutor later in the film. Their relationship is sweet, as well as the way they nurture and guide Phiona.
There is a delightful lack of a white or Western savior (there is no Russian or American chess coach, for example) that would, in this type of film, become the focus of this movie, and would generally take the place of Robert’s character. The overused character type of the well-meaning, well-off American coach who inspires a minority and/or impoverished youth, employed in films such as Million Dollar Arm or The Blind Side is absent here. Instead, Queen of Katwe allows the sympathetic story of its characters to connect with the audience without placing a western character to stand in as an audience surrogate. This creates a sense of authenticity and invests solely in its protagonists and their community.
A League of Their Own: Queen of Katwe is predictable in its emotional beats, and its plot points are the type you would expect from this type of film. Unfortunately, therefore, some of the hurdles faced by Phiona, particularly in the first half of the film, can feel uninspired, and the stakes often feel low. In film’s story strengthens after the first half. When Phiona returns to Katwe after success in Sudan and her first airplane ride, she feels disappointed and out of place with her simple life. These moments, that confront the complex nature of expectations, financial mobility, and the burden of success, are the film’s strongest. The subsequent tension and relationship Phiona has with her mother, who is conflicted between encouraging her daughter and tempering her expectations, is realistic, interesting, and well-handled.
Moments that confront tensions among different communities within Uganda are interesting as well, and issues of class in Uganda feel both personal to the story’s characters and universal. The first time the chess team of Katwe go outside their community for a chess tournament at a gated private school, is masterfully done, tense, touching, and sometimes comical. Scenes of students playing rugby and walking around their campus in their crisp, clean uniforms, force the viewer to not only understand the students in Katwe’s sense of inadequacy, but allow us to see another side of Ugandan life not often shown to us: one of privilege and wealth. These moments that confront the tension between rural and metropolitan communities, as well as classism and prejudice between educated and uneducated Ugandans, are strong.
The Natural: There are some minor faults outside of any contrived plot elements, however. Despite the stunning visual quality, there are moments of distracting ADR work that could take a viewer out of the film. And while the amount of screen time dedicated to many of the children is a bold choice, and while they are always adorable to watch, some of the performances are understandably stilted.
Ultimately, the positivity and joy of this movie outweigh its faults. Madina Nalwanga is, in all her varied moments of seriousness, confidence, and sensitivity, delightful to watch, and embodies the character with sincerity and youthful energy. The commitment of both the community of Katwe and the filmmakers themselves, to Phiona, as a person as a remarkable symbol of inspiration, is uplifting.
Overall: Queen of Katwe tells a positive story, inspiring and sincere. It delivers on the expectations of its genre and accomplishes its goals with heart. The story of Phiona Mutesi is sometimes cliché, but overall entertaining, well-acted, and well worth watching.
Featured Image: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures