Roughly 15 minutes into Mira Nair’s new film Queen of Katwe, and your defenses are down. Good luck trying to resist the charms of this uplifting true-life drama.
A young girl from the slums in Uganda discovers that she’s a chess prodigy, and with help from her coach she pursues her dream of becoming a champion and moving her family out of abject poverty.
Sports films tend to stick to a predictable template, and this one too follows the beats of many an inspirational underdog story. But it’s also an unusually affecting film that transcends the familiar formula.
For one, Nair’s depiction of African culture is rich and captivating. Katwe, the sprawling slum outside Kampala, the capital of Uganda, is a rough neighborhood, but Nair makes the most out of the locations with plenty of vibrant colors. She also does a great job of bringing out the best in her cast.
Newcomer Madina Nalwanga stars as Phiona Mutesi, the nine-year-old protagonist and future chess champion, whom we first meet selling maize in the street to help support her family. Nalwanga, whom Nair discovered near Katwe, effortlessly conveys both the character’s shyness and determination, her wide-eyed fascination when she first stumbles onto the game, and even her crushing disappointment on the occasions when she realizes she has a long way to achieve her dream.
As her widowed mother Harriet, unwilling to let go of her pride while all along struggling to provide for her children, Lupita Nyong’o is nothing short of a revelation, capable of expressing multiple complex emotions with a single glance. Afraid initially that Phiona may be setting herself up for heartbreak in chasing a dream that’s out of her reach, Harriet is suspicious and dismissive, and Nyong’o conveys a mother’s protective instinct most naturally. Then there’s David Oyelowo, who infuses warmth and kindness and empathy into the role of Robert Katende, a soccer player turned missionary who sets up a chess club, notices Phiona’s talent, and grooms her for international tournaments. In the hands of less competent actors, the inspiring coach and the stubborn mother might have been reduced to stock caricatures, but Oyelowo and Nyong’o never let that happen.
There is humor in the interactions between Katende’s ragtag group of chess prodigies who travel around Africa and to Russia. And there are several metaphors about how the strategies of chess apply to life itself. To her credit, Nair never shies away from showing the hardships of poverty, homelessness, and a lack of food and education. The film is stronger, and its message clearer because of that.
I’m going with three-and-a-half out of five for Queen of Katwe. The blatant sports-movie clichés aside, this is a genuinely moving film with winning performances.
Rating: 3.5 / 5