Film Review: Queen of Katwe

by Carrie Kahn on September 23, 2016

Nair brings inspirational chess prodigy story to life in appealing new film  

Robert Katende (David Oyelowo) imparts chess – and life – wisdom to young Phiona (Madina Nalwanga).

The phrase “heartwarming family film” has been overused so much that it’s become a meaningless cliché, but when is the last time you saw a live action picture that legitimately fit that description? A few Pixar movies aside, the cinematic offerings that truly appeal to parents and kids alike have been pretty paltry lately. Disney competently rectifies that situation today with Queen of Katwe, a well made, well acted, inspirational-without-being-cloying film that tells the true story of a poor girl from the poverty-stricken town of Katwe, Uganda, who becomes a national and international chess champion.

Directed by Mira Nair (Monsoon Wedding; Mississippi Masala) and written by William Wheeler (a writer for TV’s Ray Donovan), Queen of Katwe is based on a 2012 book by ESPN writer Tim Crothers titled The Queen of Katwe: A Story of Life, Chess, and One Extraordinary Girl’s Dream of Becoming a Grandmaster. The extraordinary girl in question is 14-year-old Phiona Mutesi (Madina Nalwanga, extraordinary in her own right) an illiterate hard-working girl who helps her single mother (Lupita Nyong’o) and younger siblings barely keep a roof over their heads by selling corn in the Katwe marketplace while her older sister takes off with a variety of ill-advised suitors, much to her mother’s dismay.

One day Phiona and her brother Brian (Martin Kabanza) wander into a hut where Robert Katende (David Oyelowo), an engineer by training and a children’s mentor by passion, is teaching the local kids chess as a way to give them a focus and clarity not easily found in the chaotic Katwe streets. Phiona and Brian both take to the game immediately, but within minutes, Phiona proves herself the gifted natural. The movie, which spans five years, chronicles Phiona’s rise to national — and then international — chess tournament stardom under the tutelage of the kind and determined Katende and his wife Sara (Esther Tebandeke).

Young Phiona (Madina Nalwanga, l.) shares a tender moment with Mom Harriet (Lupita Nyong’o).

Stories like these about overcoming tremendous odds and hardships to find glory and success run the danger of veering into saccharine heavy-handedness, but Nair avoids that trap by treating all her characters honestly as individuals, and showing us not just their remarkable achievements and strengths, but also their foibles and flaws. Sure, there are lines like, “You belong where you believe you belong,” and “Losing does not mean you’re a failure. Losses happen for all of us. What matters is you reset the pieces and play again,” but as uttered by terrific actors like Oyelowo, we feel the weight and sincerity of such advice, just as Phiona does.

And Nair balances out such traditional sports-movie pep talk by giving all her characters complex personalities and truthful moments. One of the movie’s best scenes, which underscores the difference between The Pioneers (the name of the Katwe children’s chess team) and their rivals from more upscale cities and towns, takes place when The Pioneers arrive for a tournament at fancy King’s College and are housed in a dormitory; surrounded by beds with clean linens and blankets, the children instead sleep curled up together on the floor, just like they are used to doing at home. It’s a small moment, but the look on Katende’s face when he comes to rouse them in the morning and finds them that way speaks volumes in terms of what Nair and Wheeler are trying to convey about poverty, class, and opportunity.

Phiona (Madina Nalwanga) celebrates a chess tournament victory.

And while kids especially will appreciate the film’s underdog story and you-can-do-it message, the film actually works on another level, too, that may appeal more to adults. In Nair’s hands, Phiona’s story also becomes a powerful narrative about mothers and daughters: their bonds, their conflicts, and, ultimately, their love. Nyong’o is fierce and proud as Phiona’s mother Harriet, desperately trying to hold what’s left of her family together; she wants the best for her children, but she also fears them leaving – both for their safety, and for her own peace of mind and needs. Nyong’o and Oyelowo have only a few scenes together, but they are some of the film’s best, as each character tries to ascertain the other’s intentions and motives. But the true heart of the film can be found in the scenes between Harriet and Phiona; bring tissues, because if you’ve ever been a mother or a daughter, you’re going to need them. The age old struggle between independence and familial ties comes to the forefront here and in scenes between Nyong’o and Taryn Kyaze, playing hardheaded older daughter Night.

Nair also made the wise choice to film entirely on location in Uganda and South Africa, and Western audiences will benefit from seeing the rarely-viewed Katwe and Kampala on screen; we’re transported to a totally different world, and being in the thick of that world helps us better understand Phiona’s challenges and successes and what’s at stake for her, and her family. Even if you think you don’t like Disney pictures, do yourself a favor and give this one a chance; it’s one you actually can enjoy with your visiting parents, your 8-year-old son, and your 18-year-old daughter. And it just might inspire you — or your kids — to get out the chessboard when you get home. Be ready.

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Queen of Katwe opens today at Bay Area theaters.

Carrie Kahn

Moving from the arthouse to the multiplex with grace, ease, and only the occasional eye roll.

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