Queen of Katwe
Directed by: Mira Nair.
Written by: William Wheeler based on the article and book by Tim Crothers.
Starring: Madina Nalwanga (Phiona Mutesi), David Oyelowo (Robert Katende), Lupita Nyong'o (Nakku Harriet), Martin Kabanza (Mugabi Brian), Taryn Kyaze (Night), Ivan Jacobo (Young Richard), Nicolas Levesque (Older Richard), Ronald Ssemaganda (Ivan), Ethan Nazario Lubega (Benjamin), Nikita Waligwa (Gloria), Edgar Kanyike (Joseph), Esther Tebandeke (Sara Katende), Hope Katende (Hope Katende), Philip Luswata (Minister Aloysius Kyazze), Peter Odeke (Enoch Barumba), Maurice Kirya (Theo).
I am a sucker for inspirational sports movies – even though for the most part, you know precisely how they are going to turn out from the moment the movie starts. Chess may not be a sport, but Mira Nair’s Queen of Katwe still plays like one of those movies – where a genius from an unexpected place rises up to become a champion, when no one else believed in them. Queen of Katwe follows the well-worn formula well – and for the most part it works, even if chess isn’t the most cinematic of games (oddly though, I think chess probably has to be the board game with the most movies made about it though, right). I was only really let down by the ending – which seems to be too long and drawn out, as if we didn’t quite get the inspirational ending we were going for before, so let’s just keeping going until we do. It’s there when the film feels forced and awkward, a shame because so much of it works.
The film is set in Uganda, and stars newcomer Madina Nalwanga as Phiona Mutesi, who is amongst the poorest of the poor in her town of Katwe. A young teacher, Robert Katende (David Oyelowo) starts teaching the local children chess, and even many of them start by looking down on Phiona – and mocking her for the way she smells. She’s one of four children, being raise by Nakku Harriet (Lupita Nyong’o) – who has her kids selling corn on the street, otherwise none of them will eat. Harriet isn’t crazy about two her kids playing chess instead of working – but is convinced by Robert, who can tell, quite early, that Phiona has a natural feeling for the game. When she beats the boy who up until then was the class champion, he wants to know where she learned her moves – which of his books she studied. But she didn’t study any of them – she cannot even read at all. She just saw the game many moves ahead, and could intuit how to win. From there, Robert finds ways to get Phiona, and his other kids, into chess tournaments around Uganda – where they are often looked down upon, or at best as charity cases to be pitied. That is until Phiona wins. He also helps them to get an actual education as well – seeing a different life for them.
The film is directed by Mira Nair, the Indian director, who has knows Uganda well – she has set parts of her earlier films there, and has worked with various groups to promote filmmaker through the country. Her natural feel for the locations help the film a great deal – she doesn’t shoot it as an exotic locale, but as a place where people live and work, and try to survive. She gets fine performances out of Oyelowo and Oscar winner Nyong’o – who admittedly are playing fairly clichéd characters, but do their best to make them feel real, and especially out of newcomer Nalwanga, who excels in the first 90 minutes as the incredibly smart, yet somewhat insecure Phiona. She’s on less solid footing in the final act – where Phiona has grown bored by her life in Katwe, and wants out – but by the then, the movie as a whole is dragging, and feels more artificial than it did at first the strain to keep up a narrative this well-trodden starts to show.
The film mainly works – and for those who perhaps have seen fewer of these inspirational sports movies from Disney maybe well like it more than I did. Yes, it’s about chess, but you don’t need to know much about the game to get the film – I think one of the issues with the movie is to try to appeal to a wider, Disney-approved audience, the film doesn’t even bother to try to touch upon the intricacies of the game, or what makes Phiona so good at it, compared to everyone else. The movie is about as clichéd as they come – yet it’s still somewhat refreshing to see a movie like this, about people in Africa, whose story hasn’t been filtered through some well-meaning white guy. For that alone, perhaps Queen of Katwe deserves to be more wildly seen than it was when it was released last falls.