I have come to assume that a film helmed by Disney will shy away from more complicated parts of life and instead rely heavily on cliches and feel-good lessons. With director Mira Nair at the helm, Disney’s Queen of Katwe is shockingly light on cheesiness and instead offers a nuanced and uplifting portrait of a family determined to weather hard times and one girls’ discovery of her own genius.
Queen of Katwe tells the story of Phiona Mutesi (Madina Nalwanga), a girl from Katwe, a rural town in Uganda, who becomes involved with “The Pioneers” a chess club that functions as part of a sports outreach program in the community, coached by Robert Katende (David Oyelowo), who at first views the gig as a stopgap while he struggles to find work as an engineer. Phiona and her family struggle to get by on a daily basis. Her mother, Nakku Harriet (Lupita Nyong’o), is a widow, left to support her four children on her own, without an education or a support system. Meanwhile, Phiona’s older sister, Night (Taryn Kyaze) gets into trouble with boys and she and her brother, Brian (Martin Kabanza) sell corn to passing cars to help pay the bills. At first, playing chess offers some fun and mugs of porridge, but Phiona quickly surpasses her peers, revealing that she has the talent of a prodigy. With the support of his wife, Sara (Esther Tebandeke), a school teacher, Coach Robert pushes to take the team, and Phiona herself, to major chess tournaments, exposing them to a life outside of their town and unleashing a hunger to be a Master in Phiona.
Although it has the makings of a typical feel-good sports movie, I respect how Queen of Katwe attends to the nuances of Phiona and her mother’s struggle. Life in Katwe is precarious and Nakku’s passionate protection of her children runs the risk of holding Phiona back. As much as the joy at the chess tournaments buoys the story, the very hard challenges for Phiona’s family life give her ambition weight and depth. Although her mother does not fully understand her daughter’s new life, and she fears that it will give her hopes that cannot be fulfilled, many scenes depict the two finding ways to express love tangibly, supporting each other across the gap and with a fierceness that permeates the drama.
Alongside these heavier themes, however, Nair fills the film with little touches that capture the joy of children bonding or the little ways that people make do. For example, at chess tournaments Pioneer Benjamin (Ethan Nazario Lubega), a champion in his own right, faces levels of self-doubt and anxiety that border on parodying Woody Allen. In contrast, confident Gloria (Nikita Waligwa) has a bent toward hot-headedness that leads to some funny little moments. Back home, if you pay attention, you can see Phiona’s family using her growing collection of trophies as mirrors or, in one case, a bowl.
The fabulous attention to detail and riveting family saga are tied together by an outstanding cast. The young actors who make up the ensemble are funny and compelling. In her first role, Madina Nalwanga depicts Phonia with a stoicism that still conveys her fighter’s spirit and the depth of feeling she has for her family and her coach. She holds her own alongside award-winning stars David Oyelowo and Lupita Nyong’o. Nyong’o is a force to be reckoned with. I had not seen her before in a role that was so authoritative and her commanding presence resonates throughout the film. Oyelowo delivers an excellent performance, but his biggest contribution is delivering chess-themed lessons without making them sound as cliched as they easily could have.
Queen of Katwe is beautiful and moving and captures complicated relationships in a way that gives the feel-good chess plot real stakes and kept me hoping for more. 5/5 stars.
Queen of Katwe was directed by Mira Nair and written by William Wheeler, based on the ESPN Magazine article and book by Tim Crothers. It runs 124 minutes and is rated PG for thematic elements, an accident scene, and some suggestive content.
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