Queen of Katwe (2016) / Drama
MPAA Rated: PG for thematic elements, an accident scene and some suggestive material
Running Time: 124 min.
Cast: Madina Nalwanga, David Oyelowo, Lupita Nyong'o, Martin Kabanza, Taryn "Kay" Kyaze, Ivan Jacobo, Ethan Nazario Lubega
Director: Mira Nair
Screenplay: William Wheeler (based on the ESPN article and nonfiction book by Tim Crothers)
Review published October 2, 2016
The Queen of Katwe is a live-action Disney biopic (in collaboration with ESPN Films) about Phiona Mutesi (Nalwanga), who we see growing up in Katwe, in the crime-ridden slums of Kampala, capital of Uganda, with a future ahead of her that seems to only offer more of the same for her and her family. David Oyelowo (Selma, A Most Violent Year) co-stars as Christian missionary and youth outreach coordinator Robert Katende, who discovers a hidden prodigy in Phiona when he gathers some of the local children together to teach them the game of chess. Phiona gets very good, very quickly, soon enough besting all of the kids in Katwe, leading Robert to seek greener pastures by trying to have her compete in competitions sponsored by schools for the more formally educated.
Opportunities are scarce for someone of her situation (not only prejudice against people of the slums, but you also need money to enter some of the competitions), and Phiona's widowed mother Harriet (Nyong'o, The Jungle Book) grows increasingly concerned that the path Robert has her on will lead to a diminishing of her home life and earning money to help feed her and the family by selling maize (corn) at the local market.
Directed by Monsoon Wedding's Mira Nair, Indian-born but also a Kampala resident (her husband is Ugandan), with professional flair, while the movie does conform into your typical underdog sports film formula, there's much more emphasis on how the 'sport' (if one wants to call chess a sport) affects the characters rather than purely the importance of winning. Also, Phiona's challenges are very different to those found in your traditional sports films, primarily do to the social climate of her country, especially in its attitudes toward women and the poor, as well as her sense of responsibility to the well-being of her immediate family in order to help them stay afloat. While Phiona is very smart, she is also illiterate due to the inability to afford schooling, and her show of intelligence is derided in an environment in which women are often devalued for their intellects, even bullied. It's also a refreshing film that shows that success is often not achieved by one's talent alone; it takes a kind-hearted mentor, an understanding mother, a supportive family, and a neighborhood to support her enough to make her believe in herself and her abilities that lead to success.
Queen of Katwe is beautifully acted, with a strong debut central performance by Madina Nalwanga as Phiona, who imbues her character with all of the charisma, liveliness and intelligence to believe her in the role of a young woman coming into her own, both as a woman and as an intellectual force. David Oyelowo anchors the film in yet another solid turn as the inspirational mentor, Robert, whose integrity and heart forms the basis for children believing in themselves in a world that would rather not even think about them at all. He's a man in conflict between having to make decisions to benefit the children who need his help, and the wife and child who needs him to provide for them too by finding a well-paying job that might take him away from his role in inspiring underprivileged youth. Lupita Nyong'o gets top billing, though she is a supporting player, as the mother whose pride is both a blessing and a curse. Though some have thought Nyong'o too old to play the mother of teenagers, it should be noted that the actress is actually 33 years old (roughly half of Katwe's teenage girls are mothers).
And on another note not directly related to the quality of the film itself, it's refreshing to see a major studio push a story set in Uganda without the need to inject a big name Caucasian actor to market it to wider markets, or to show Africa as a land of strife, war and genocide. It is a film about day-to-day living in Uganda, with characters that must make decisions based on real and relatable problems they face every day.
You don't have to love or even know about how to play chess to enjoy the film as a story, as it's more about how Phiona has to overcome her own issues more so than how much he needs to overcome any particular opponents. There is some chess action, but the movie doesn't get into the finer intricacies of the strategies employed. For those interested in inspirational stories based on true-life events surrounding the world of sports and games, Queen of Katwe delivers a traditional underdog-makes-good story about characters we don't get to see portrayed in films very often. While it does play mostly as a family film that skews toward adolescent viewers, this is a hopeful and inspiring human story of a pawn that perseveres across the proverbial difficult board to become a queen, that should entertain all audiences, from any walk of life.
©2016 Vince Leo