Queen Of Katwe is a Million Dollar Arm clone by way of chess and David Oyelowo instead of baseball and Jon Hamm, right down to similar strengths and weaknesses. Both films tell of underprivileged children being given the opportunity of a lifetime thanks to the salvation of competition, guided by the dedication of an influential mentor/coach. Disney proves once again that no one finds young talent like they do (Madina Nalwanga), storytelling beats walk a predictable path and our hearts are warmed. It doesn’t get better than a sunny true story, and director Mira Nair plans her moves with enough strategy so as not to waste Phiona Mutesi’s championship rise. It’s surely not the rawest, most provocative human tale, but a sweet coming-of-age survival story nonetheless.
It’s debut actress Madina Nalwanga who plays Uganda’s most unlikely chess champion, Katwe’s own Phiona Mutesi. Not only does she achieve success around the age of fourteen, but she does so while living in the slums with her mother (Nakku Harriet, played by Lupita Nyong’o) and two brothers (Richard, played by Nicolas Levesque/Ivan Jacobo, and Mugabi Brian, played by Martin Kabanza). It’s here where Phiona meets Robert Katende (David Oyelowo), who teaches her the art of chess (when she’s not raising money for her family). Phiona’s mother is hesitant to let Mr. Katende teach both Phiona and Brian, but after some convincing, Phiona is on her way to becoming a renowned chess player with a bright, fulfilling future. The girl who came from nothing is soon beating city folk with ease – an underdog story with social implications.
As already stated, Queen Of Katwe feels all-too familiar. Odds are stacked against a child based solely on privilege, but she escapes certain disadvantages thanks to kindness and her own determined will. Chess is all about seeing “x” amount of steps ahead, which Phiona can do at an almost telepathic rate. She flashes the skills (children freak out, thinking their minds are being read), even though Phiona’s immaturity sometimes stunts progress thanks to mounting pressures. We all know how it ends – Phiona makes Uganda proud and saves her family from dire living conditions – but the journey is one that proves to children that dreams can be achieved, and trends can be bucked. It’s a positive reinforcement, plus a reminder of our own advantages versus third-world conditions.
Queen Of Katwe sometimes relishes in its material a bit too exhaustively. At 124 minutes, a handful of scenes linger on in their dumpy reality, specifically when Phiona’s home life is being exploited. Some of the film’s most powerful scenes involve Lupita Nyong’o’s single mother and her struggle to provide comfortably, but other moments only work to reconfirm what we already know – Kawte, for as vibrant a community of bonded inhabitants it is, suffers economically. Children are forced to sell products car-to-car just to scrounge up enough money for dinner, while homes are nothing but shacks (not even glorified ones). This reality is established over and over again, as Phiona attempts to separate her born-into lifestyle from a chance to chase bigger and better dreams – but Nair’s coverage of this message is almost overkill.
Surprisingly, it’s the performances of many that drive Queen Of Katwe, not just a famous few. Oyelowo and Nyong’o are stunning – Oyelowo as a caring humanitarian husband, leader and teacher; Nyong’o as an old-school mother filled with a fiery love and passion for family above all else. Yet, I’m speaking more to Nalwanga’s sometimes rigid, but most times natural embodiment of Phiona’s brainy determination, or Ethan Nazario Lubega as Benjamin, the young jokester. Each child blends the beauty of situational adaptation with personalities made from smiles and vitality, never finding hopelessness in Katwe. This is a cast that believes in the tribal spirits of Ugandan natives, and wants to respect the real people who made such an astounding story into something real.
There’s enough beauty, compassion and uplifting spirit to Queen Of Katwe that deserves your attention. Don’t be fooled by the chess-playing theme – matches are actually rather intriguing, as Phiona ponders astutely, planning her next calculated attack. The way Mira Nair balances maturity with juvenility works to humanize an otherwise spectacular underdog feat, and pushes a cause that’s easy to root for. Some trimming could have made this a much more taught, engaging motivational piece, but even in its elongated state, Phiona Mutesi’s story is yet another sweet story about the amazing things our children can accomplish. One girl became a beacon of hope thanks to a simple board game, and Disney does justice to her noteworthy rise.
As Mr. Katende states, you should never “tip over your king” in any circumstance – then you can’t enjoy the look on people’s faces when you prove them so incredibly wrong.
Queen Of Katwe is pretty typical Disney magic, but dynamic performances add a little more oomph to Phiona Mutesi's amazing true story.