Film Review: Queen of Katwe

The Disney brand is a natural fit for this inspirational true story about an illiterate girl from Uganda whose uncanny ability to master the game of chess changes not only her life, but the lives of her family and entire community.
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The most stunningly original—and most powerful—thing about Queen of Katwe is that it was shot entirely on location in Africa, primarily in the actual suburban neighborhoods of Kampala, Uganda, where the chess prodigy Phiona Mutesi has spent most of her 16 years—and where her incredible story actually unfolded. Quite honestly, we’ve never seen anything like it—all the color, movement and energy of an old but largely unknown place in the poverty-scarred heart of Africa where few outsiders (i.e., white people) have dared to venture. It’s a setting that could not possibly have been duplicated on a soundstage, and this fact alone—Queen of Katwe’s commitment to authenticity—puts it quite a few notches above the majority of feel-good movies traditionally coming out of Disney Studios.

And there’s another equally strong and authentic element here: the impressive performances of the all-black cast led by David Oyelowo (who was heaped with accolades for his portrayal of Martin Luther King in Selma) and Lupita Nyong’o, who deservedly won the Academy Awards’ Best Supporting Actress designation for her role in Twelve Years a Slave. But Queen of Katwe’s central role is taken by very young newcomer Madina Nalwanga, a native Ugandan who plays the teenage chess marvel Phiona. She was reportedly cast just weeks before shooting began in mid-2015 (after a year-long search during which the filmmakers auditioned over 700 girls), and she was then living in a village just down the road from Katwe. You can’t get much more authentic than that.

Having noted all of the above, however, there remains one important element in Queen of Katwe that doesn’t live up to the film’s commitment to authenticity. Yes, this particular feel-good story is true, and yes, there are just so many ways you can tell such a story. But the script here seemsjust too Disneyfied, for it makes almost every character the absolute epitome of goodness and nobility, and every ugly or unfortunate situation ends too neatly and carries a too-on-the-nose inspirational message. There had to be a better way to show Phiona’s phenomenal achievements in the rarified world of international chess competition without, well, going overboard on the Disney treatment.

The film begins with Robert Katende (Oyelowo), an aspiring engineer who, while waiting for the right job, volunteers his time to a local church to specifically serve the needs of Katwe’s children. He forms a soccer team and starts a club to teach the kids chess as a way to exercise and sharpen their mental skills. Phiona’s brother Brian (Martin Kabanza) is an eager student of the latter, and one day the curious girl accompanies him to a chess lesson. Watching the proceedings makes her eyes light up and her entire body hum with anticipation—and Katende sees at once that Phiona has a special gift for the game, for she intuitively picks up the arcane rules of chess and can uncannily see ahead to assess the most complex moves. When Katende decides to mentor Phiona, he tries to explain the situation to her widowed mother, Harriet (Nyong’o), but she’s having none of it.

The hard-working Harriet simply does not understand why any “game” should take precedence over Phiona’s “job” of selling corn on the streets of Katwe to help support her large family. Eventually, of course, Katende devotes most of his life to Phiona’s development as a champion chess player, and he finally convinces Harriet that this may be the only way Phiona can lift herself and her entire family out of poverty. In laying out this standard aspirational stuff, the filmmakers make use of some pretty standard techniques to create tension and suspense—and for the most part, it works. There’s some real excitement, for example, in the high-level chess tournaments Phiona enters—and wins.

The primary credit for the wonderfully authentic look and feel of Queen of Katwe—as well as for the several strong performances in it—must go to its director, Mira Nair, who previously helmed several successful multicultural films (Salaam Bombay!, Mississippi Masala) and who, not so incidentally, keeps a home in Kampala, Uganda. So she obviously knows the territory. In the end, the obvious weaknesses in Queen of Katwe’s script hardly matter, as most viewers will realize that they’ve discovered something new and worthwhile—a place and a people they’ve never before seen or acknowledged—and that they’ve been deeply touched by a familiar yet tried-and-true real-life story. In other words, it’s not so important that Disney has done it to us again; what’s important is that somewhere—in Uganda or in Utah—someone may be inspired in a feel-good kind of way for the very first time.

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