Filmmaker Mira Nair (Monsoon Wedding, Mississippi Masala) crafts her own unique, feminist, Afro-centric take on the tried and true Disney sports movie formula with the charming and crowd pleasing Queen of Katwe, a film that makes up for a lack of narrative originality with a wealth of exceptionally crafted characters and a distinct sense of setting, place, and culture. It’s never in doubt here that our heroes will achieve their goals (especially since the film is based on a true story), but that’s of little consequence when the characters and the world around them are so fascinatingly realistic.
Ten-year-old Phiona Mutesi (Madina Nalwanga, in her starring debut) lives in a Ugandan slum with her younger brother, occasionally her older working girl sister, and her headstrong, hard working mother (Lupita Nyong’o). One day she happens upon a children’s mission where Coach Robert Kalende (David Oyelowo), an out of work engineer and former soccer player, is teaching other similarly impoverished kids to play chess. Phiona takes to the game immediately, and begins dreaming of one day becoming a Grand Master, something Robert believes is achievable through hard work, dedication, and education.
Mom doesn’t understand at first, there’s a long gestating subplot where Robert might have to stop coaching, Phiona gets a big head from success, and there are a handful of tragedies sprinkled throughout. One knows going in that Queen of Katwe would never have been optioned by a studio like Disney if Phiona’s story didn’t turn out at least somewhat okay. It’s predictable in that regard, but everything around the bits one can see coming shine.
The script from William Wheeler (who previously collaborated with Nair on The Reluctant Fundamentalist) gives all three well cast leads plenty to work with. Oyelowo and Nyong’o deliver committed, subtle, and powerful performances, and Nalwanga delivers a performance more fully rounded than most novice actors could ever hope to achieve. These are complex characters acting out a fairly pat story, which counts for a lot. The film deftly dodges most sporting and inspirational movie clichés by reminding the audience that it’s not so much about the storytelling dynamics, but about the people moving within the story.
A huge credit for the success of Queen of Katwe has to go to Nair, though. Herself a Ugandan resident for almost three decades now, the Indian born filmmaker commits to the authenticity of the film. Her choice to film directly in the slums of Katwe and in the streets of Kampala instead of on a set somewhere else – utilizing locals for extras and making the most of inner city chaos – makes one almost able to smell the city streets. The film has a lived in feeling that made me wonder why other flicks about overcoming adversity and class don’t take likeminded approaches with similar material.
Queen of Katwe is definitely a film about a young person using chess as a way out of a life of poverty, and it could easily be read as such, but Nair and her cast also want to say things about how patriarchal power structures and the divide between the poor and the middle class are the same in Africa as they are everywhere else. The details are very specific, but the overarching themes are universal. Queen of Katwe is able to keep both sentiments in mind to keep the playing board as even as possible. It’s as nuanced and thoughtful as these kinds of films get, and for that it’s certainly a noteworthy effort all around.