THE STORY – Living in the slum of Katwe in Kampala, Uganda, is a constant struggle for 10-year-old Phiona (Madina Nalwanga) and her family. Her world changes one day when she meets Robert Katende (David Oyelowo), a missionary who teaches children how to play chess. Phiona becomes fascinated with the game and soon becomes a top player under Katende’s guidance. Her success in local competitions and tournaments opens the door to a bright future and a golden chance to escape from a life of poverty.
THE CAST – David Oyelowo, Lupita Nyong’o & Madina Nalwanga
THE TEAM – Mira Nair (Director) & William Wheeler (Screenplay)
THE RUNNING TIME – 124 Minutes
By Michael S.
Mira Nair’s “Queen Of Katwe” doesn’t sound like an average Disney release on paper. It is a true-life story set in Uganda that doesn’t exactly scream, “mouse house.” However, after consideration, it actually has more in common with previous Disney releases than it seems. Like “The Rookie,” “Miracle,” and “McFarland USA,” “Queen Of Katwe” is a triumphant feel-good story rooted in positive themes and messages. That is usually good enough, but the skills that director Mira Nair brings to the project pushes it to another level. After complaints about a lack of diversity in mainstream filmmaking, this is a title that puts those criticisms to rest.
“Queen Of Katwe,” tells the story of Phiona Mutesi (Madina Nalwanga), a young girl who lives with her struggling mother Nakku Harriet (Lupita Nyong’o) and siblings in a Ugandan village. The family spends most of their days struggling to get by. There is no time for school, let alone for activities. The family sells maize in the crowded market before retuning home and starting the process again. That changes when Robert Katende (David Oyelowo), the head of a local sports ministry, comes to teach village children a new game – chess. As anyone can infer from this point on, Phiona takes a liking to the sport and goes on to prosper in international competitions.
The way the film plays off this seemingly cliched story is all very well done and fully engaging for the audience despite the predictable genre trappings. Nair directs the film with a clear sensibility towards circumstances. Details regarding the well-being of Ugandan citizens are not kept hidden as we see the sad fate of most women who do not receive glamorous educations or lifestyles compared to other cultures. Phiona uses this as an opportunity to rise above the ranks, while always keeping her heart close to home. As for the chess scenes, they are nothing short of riveting. I’ve never been one to understand the game of chess, yet the film goes out of its way to create feelings of tension and triumph that make these scenes easy to follow. The film does pull at the heartstrings in the most appropriate of moments and as a result, Nair proves herself to be as smart and humanist a filmmaker as Steven Spielberg.
The performances are uniformly excellent all around. Lupita Nyong’o and David Oyelowo do more than required with their characters. The screenplay may saddle them with typical mother/coach roles, but they are able to elevate the material and give very convincing and effective performance. These are two of the finest actors working today and they make it look so easy. However, the real revelation is Madina Nalawanga, who actually comes from Uganda and makes her acting debut in this film. Her screen presence is nothing short of astonishing as she plays Phiona as both an average teenage girl and a young woman who is wise beyond her years. This is a breakout performance that earns the right to be compared to other aspiring younger actor performances such as Jacob Tremblay in “Room” or Quvenshané Wallis in “Beasts Of The Southern Wild.”
“Queen Of Katwe” is not revolutionary in terms of its storytelling by any means, yet it marks a progress point for films that celebrate diversity. The screenplay checks off all of the boxes in terms of storytelling from this kind of genre which we have seen countless times before but that detail aside, here is a well-made and well-told story that is perfectly subtitle for a family to enjoy. This is a joyous surprise in the film marketplace, one that deserves attention and respect.
THE FINAL SCORE
THE GOOD – Able to rise above most of its conventional storytelling with great performances from Oyelowo, Nyong’o & newcomer Nalwanga.
THE BAD – Despite the great performances, some may still feel the film is cliched enough to be dismissed anyway.