From Disney and Director Mira Nair comes Queen of Katwe, the real life story of Phiona Mutesi, a Ugandan girl who attempts to use chess to escape her poverty-stricken life. Does she succeed or does the dangerous world around her swallow her whole?
Phiona (Madina Nalwanga) lives in the slum of Katwe with her mother, Harriet (Lupita Nyong’o), her brothers Brian (Martin Kabanza) and Richard (Ivan Jacobo / Nicolas Levesque), and her older sister, Night (Taryn Kyaze). Every day, she must help her mother to support her family, while her sister goes off to gallivant with her boyfriend. Harriet is very protective of her children and suspicious of outsiders. Phiona’s life changes when she meets Robert Katende (David Oyelowo), a youth soccer coach who also teaches children chess for an afterschool church program. Phiona takes a liking to the game and shows that she might be a chess prodigy in the making. However, as Robert works to get her and her friends to play in tournaments, the outside world threatens to irrevocably change who Phiona is and it is a person her mother no longer recognizes.
Being that this is a movie from Disney, you can probably figure out how it all ends, but that doesn’t change the fact that the story is both moving and uplifting. You can’t help but get caught up in Phiona’s story and root for her as she faces the obstacles placed in front of her. You also root for Robert as you watch him try to make a better life for his family. There were a few story shortcuts that are common to biopics, but I often found myself confused about Phiona’s rising through the ranks of chess champions. The film does a fine job letting the audience knowing in what year all the events take place, but it was the actual events themselves that confused me. For instance, there is a joyous scene when Phiona wins a big tournament, but in my mind, I was asking, “Didn’t she already win that one or one comparable?” So, the film, I think, just needed to make it clearer what was what. Also, as chess begins to change Phiona’s life for the better, I found myself asking practical questions that were kind of left by the wayside in order to present the overall picture. Again, not major problems, but just some points that stuck out to me as annoying little tidbits.
The cast here does an excellent job with all the roles. The kids are highly likable and I just really enjoyed all of their performances. Nyong’o gives a great performance as Harriet and while the subject matter isn’t as heavy as her role in 12 Years a Slave, she reminds audiences why she won the Oscar for that film even if Harriet’s stubbornness gets a little tiresome toward the end of the film. Oyelowo is also excellent as Robert. He delivers a very nice performance and captures a man who is very caring and willing to give of himself. Of course, the real discovery here is Nalwanga as Phiona. Like most of the other children in the film, this is Nalwanga’s first film role, but she carries the movie on her shoulders and she does a fantastic job capturing all the emotions that boil to the surface as Phiona goes through this life-changing event. Don’t be surprised if we see Ms. Nalwanga in some more films soon.
Overall, Queen of Katwe is a delightful film that does exactly what Disney wanted to do: tell an underdog story that resonates with audiences. Is the film more than likely sanitized to be as inoffensive as possible? Probably, but that doesn’t change the fact that the enthusiasm of its young cast is infectious and the story is ultimately uplifting.