“Don’t be so quick to tip your king,” Robert Katende says in “Queen of Katwe”—practical advice for a budding chess player as well as a life lesson.
“Queen of Katwe” tells the true story of Phiona Mutesi, a Ugandan chess prodigy. Hailing from the slums of Katwe, Mutesi is a young woman who can’t read, has next to nothing, and sells maize on the streets to help provide for her family. Played with beautiful physicality by acting newcomer Madina Nalwanga, Mutesi and her oldest brother eventually wander into a chess classroom run by Robert Katende (David Oyelowo), a local sports ministry head who teaches children how to play chess. In the film, chess is depicted as a game that equalizes classes, incomes, and educations.
Katende realizes the talent Phiona possesses when she not only rises to best her classmates but also beats him at the game.
This is a film that could easily become lost in the standard storytelling clichés of sports dramas, and sometimes it does. But grounding performances and fantastic work by director Mira Nair and her technical team elevate the film above its inherent sentimentality.
“Queen of Katwe” captures the reality of Ugandan street life in a way audiences have never seen before in a Disney film, from the dirty roads and shacks to the costuming that captures differences in economic class. The scenery looks more like “Slumdog Millionaire” than “The Lion King.” Cinematographer Sean Bobbitt weaves fluidly through this world, with the lighting making the most of saturated colors and skin tones.
In a screening of Nair’s film “The Reluctant Fundamentalist” in Oct. 2015, she said “[Queen of Katwe] is probably the first Disney-financed African film without any animals inside.”
We witness the usual ties between the rules of the game and Mutesi’s life. For example, we learn Mutesi likes the act of “queening,” where a pawn beats the odds by traveling across the board and becoming a queen. We see other similar moments, such as when Katende advises Mutesi to find a “safe space” when defending, but because these ideas are brought with such a subtle touch by Oyelowo and Nair rather than hammered in, the advice feels real rather than heavy-handed.
While Nalwanga and Oyelowo are excellent in the roles of student and teacher, it is Lupita Nyong’o who owns the film in a phenomenal turn as Mutesi’s mother, Harriet. Nyong’o plays the role of both a widower and a mother with intense passion and fire, portraying backstory with the deft use of simple glances and changes in tone that could—and should—lead to a second Oscar nomination for the actress.
The film suffers from a drawn-out third act by pushing the idea that Mutesi’s success begins to tear the family apart through class conflict, an idea that feels manipulative and melodramatic in comparison to the earlier realism. But Nair recovers by the end and even treats us to footage with the real subjects of the film and the respective actors who portrayed them standing side by side.
While “Queen of Katwe” is by no means perfect, it is a rewarding, touching film that rises above its sports drama competitors.