Queen of Katwe
Director: Mira Nair
Starring: Madina Nalwanga, David Oyelowo, Lupita Nyong’o, Martin Kabanza, and Taryn Kyaze
For a few years as a teenager I played chess almost every day. I read books, studied strategy, and tried to play different people as often as I could. Chess was an fun game but also a way to help me focus on being patient and also brought an understanding of what motivated people.
I remember being challenged by a coworker to a match. By this time I had played long enough to call myself “pretty good”. As we sat down I could tell that he was a serious player, his entire demeanor changed. I wasn’t worried until he played a brilliant opening. Within no time he had me on my heels and I loss. He would only play me two more times, completely dominating both matches.
In the Disney film “The Queen of Katwe” a young Ugandan girl’s life is changed after learning how to play chess. At one point in the film another chess student tells her “the small one can become the big one”. It’s a simple but powerful statement about what a board game can do for a person’s self esteem, and more poignantly what it did for a young woman living in poverty with a stigma of gender biases and societal influences shaping her life.
Disney has a talent for making this kind of film and ESPN, who is the producing partner, understands how the essence of sports can be both dramatic and portray the struggles and achievements of humanity in captivating ways.
Phiona Mutesi (Madina Nalwanga) does not go to school; she sells corn in the busy streets of rural Uganda. Phiona is introduced to the game of chess from a youth ministry instructor named Robert Katende (David Oyelowo) and she quickly advances in skill. Seeing potential, Robert wants to take Phiona to competitions outside of Katwe, however Phiona’s mother Nakku (Lupita Nyong’o) is cautious and resists her daughter’s involvement. Robert shows Nakku that this board game has potential to change Phiona’s life for the better, reluctantly Nakku allows Phiona to compete.
These kinds of films have an inherent quality of being overly cliché and heavy handed on emotional cues that tug unabashedly on the heartstrings. The viewer knows where a film like this is going; it’s like a rollercoaster, a mix of narrative highs and lows that take a likable character through an extraordinary journey. All of these sentiments are on very clear display in “The Queen of Katwe”, but it surprisingly rarely hurts the film. In the same way that a good joke or a good scare can be effective when done correctly, this film displays what great characters portrayed by exceptional actors and guided by a creative director can do for a film. Especially one that audiences have seen many times over.
David Oyelowo is great as the coach to a group of scrappy young people. Mr. Oyelowo is inspired and provides touching motivation in many different forms. His effectiveness as a coach doesn’t come from a place of pity or with unnecessary guidance with hope; it comes from a determination to have control over choices and confidence in your abilities. Lupita Nyong’o is fantastic, playing a mother who understands the struggles that life brings but is determined to work hard and instill the same toughness in her children. Ms. Nyong’o provides a heartbreaking and inspired performance. These seasoned actor accolades are very close to being outshined by the young Madina Nalwanga who plays Phiona with a perfect blend of shyness and self-confidence. Ms. Nalwanga becomes more poised with every chess match, maturing from scene to scene.
Director Mira Nair brings a genuine and authentic feeling to the entire film. Showcasing the struggles of the poor township but also displaying the beauty found in the community and the culture. Mrs. Nair has displayed this talent already; look no further than the “Monsoon Wedding” and “Mississippi Masala” for examples. While the film runs a bit long, which weakens some of the stronger sentiments found in the late narrative, the character of Phiona is compelling and her journey has that underdog quality that keeps a film like this intriguing. While the game of chess brings positive changes to Phiona’s life, the film never displays this aspect as the only factor for success. It instead offers a portrait of a young woman who understands the value of hard work and that her place in this world is not predetermined.
4.00 out of 5.0