We view chess as a game designed for the elite, for those with time and privilege to commit to studying its myriad strategies. But many of the world's chess Masters come from humble beginnings, who saw chess as an escape from their lives and a window into something greater. You don't expect to hear of a chess champion emerging from the poorest sections of Uganda, however, and that's just one reason Disney's Queen of Katwe is so different from any other chess movie out there. While it follows a formula one might expect from a Disney/ESPN co-production, the true story of chess prodigy Phiona Mutesi is anything but common.
Directed with typical grace and authenticity by the undervalued Mira Nair, Queen of Katwe stars newcomer Madina Nalwanga as Phiona, a young girl scraping out a meager existence in the slums of Katwe, Uganda alongside her strong-willed mother Nakku (Oscar-winner Lupita Nyong'o) and three other siblings. She spends the bulk of her day on the streets trying to sell corn so they have enough money to eat, and to keep what little shelter they have over their heads. Despite the daily hardship Nakku finds brief moments to be a kid, usually horsing around with her brother. It's during one of these times that she stumbles upon the Pioneers, a group of kids being taught how to play chess by Mr. Robert Katende (David Oyelowo), a man practically radiating with hope and opportunity. While it's the daily ration of porridge that catches Phiona's eye (and stomach) at first, she's soon intrigued by this strange little game they're playing with the cheap figurines and makeshift chess boards.
It's pretty easy to guess what happens next. Phiona doesn't just become good at chess, she becomes great, soon surpassing even that of her instructor. He remains her mentor throughout, however, teaching her to use chess as a guidepost for life. Chess is a game of tactics and strategy, and sometimes you have to think outside the box to win. He encourages her to look beyond what she can see outside of her door to what's beyond.
“Sometimes the place you’re used to is not the place you belong", he tells her in one important moment.
Where the film begins to set itself apart is in the handling of Phiona's aspirations, and the potential impacts of them.At every turn family is emphasized as a key element of the young girl's life, but as she begins touring and playing in tournaments in wealthier African countries a conflict arises with Nakku, who worries her daughter will be disappointed if things don't pan out. There's also Nakku's subtly-teased concern that she will simply be left behind if Phiona achieves success elsewhere. Nair, working from William Wheeler's adaptation of Tim Crothers' novel, doesn't hold back in showing how volatile having such high aspirations can be. In a family such as Phiona's, where each day is a gamble whether you'll survive, hope can be downright corrosive.
It's also refreshing to have a story about Uganda that isn't simply about war, as there have been more than enough of those already. The economic disparity within Uganda is seen with a brutal honesty that most American audiences won't be accustomed to, especially from a Disney movie. It's seen especially as Phiona travels to play against students of higher financial standing. They see her as little more than a disease, while sometimes even the government of Katwe seem to have little invested in her abilities. Nair, who runs a film school in Uganda and has a Ugandan husband, emphasizes the country's culture, natural beauty, and music. You'll have the song "# 1 Spice" (performed by Nair's son Young Cardamom) stuck in your head all day.
Nobody will be surprised to learn that Oyelowo and Nyong'o, the latter a producer who helped develop the project, are terrific as characters who are basically two sides of a coin. Nyong'o captures Nakku's stubbornness, deep resolve, and maternal instinct. In many ways this movie is as much about her and the transformation she undergoes as it is about Phiona. Oyelowo is almost too perfect as Robert, bringing heart and wisdom to a role that easily could have been one-note. But we see in Robert a recognition that his life, which is probably what we would call lower-middle class, is very different from Phiona's. The stand-out performance belongs to Madina Nalwanga, though, who conveys so much without needing a lot of dialogue. It's a very cerebral portrayal and works for a film with as many nuances as Queen of Katwe offers. On the other end, she's surrounded by a group of young co-stars, many local non-professionals, who steal scenes as members of Phiona's chess team.
At over 120 minutes the film struggles to keep up a steady rhythm, as it's occasionally derailed by subplots that don't lead to much, like that of Phiona's wayward sister, Night. But Queen of Katwe has a ton of heart, a truly inspirational message, and a perspective on chess that is wholly unique. The winning moves it makes keep on coming right through to the enjoyable closing credits.
Rating: 3.5 out of 5