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Sports dramas tends to be a familiar lot, with a formula probably more set in stone than any other genre in film. Typically, an underdog faces challenges, learns lessons, makes a transformation and is the better for it. Many of these stories are based on the lives of real people of course and are built to be highly inspirational. Queen of Katwe certainly knows the formula and makes few attempts to avoid the tropes of its predecessors, but even as it does, finds ways to feel fresh, elevating its potential to greater heights than expected.
In the slums of Katwe, Uganda, Phiona (Madina Nalwanga) sells maize on the streets, helping to do her part as her single mother Harriet (Lupita Nyong’o), struggles to care for her many children after her husband died. She doesn’t attend school as Harriet has no money but finds herself drawn to a shanty of chess players learning the game under the tutelage of Robert (David Oyelowo), a man struggling for work, dedicating his free time to help children.
It’s not easy at first, especially as she has to earn her spot on the squad, calling themselves The Pioneers. Not long after though, she reveals her great inner skills, despite no training or even understanding of the game and its strategies. Robert is astonished by her ability and helps open doors, and as her talents become honed, earns a path to a real education and eventually a way out of poverty, though there are more things in life to learn than chess to find her way free.
Directed by Mira Nair, and based on the life of Phiona Mutesi, Queen of Katwe may have plenty of recognizable sports movie markers but what helps to separate it from others is the setting and genuine commitment to the message, which ring far more than just inspirational. Nair burrows us deep into the harsh contrasts of Kampala, the capital of Uganda, taking us from the titular Katwe slums to the upscale schools and neighborhoods beyond, having Phiona be our guide as she discovers the world beyond the harsh existence where she was raised. None of it though is manipulative or otherwise lent to the extreme emotional swings we might expect. Instead, we witness great hardship but also a people who find joy where they can, celebration, laughter, and even pride.
Nalwanga is a remarkable presence, in her debut, reserved, intense, even a little playful. She is a natural in front of the camera, galvanizing our attention with a subdued and delicately balanced performance. Nyong’o is also very well cast, playing a fierce, protective and yet fearful mother, desperate to feed and house her children, unsure about the successes of her daughter. Yet it is Oyelowo who is perhaps most memorable, his mentor/coach role one that is the cornerstone of any film in the genre but one that he never once fails to keep authentic.
The most interesting thing about the film is that it is a Disney movie, and yet by watching, you would be hard pressed to know it. While it doesn’t quite sink to some of the perhaps more troubling suffering some corners of Katwe has to offer, it does get a little tripped up in the third act when a few melodramatic moments threaten to break the trust it has established.
Queen of Katwe is a solid gem of a film, one that feels a little like a documentary, and one worth seeing, while also inspiring with great moments of earned emotional punch. Whether you’re a chess fan or not, there are rewards to be had in learning the story of Phiona, making this a surprisingly effective experience.
Movie description: Queen of Katwe is a 2016 biographical drama about a girl in the slums of Uganda whose life changes when she learns to play chess.
Director(s): Mira Nair
Actor(s): Madina Nalwanga, David Oyelowo, Lupita Nyong'o
Genre: Biography, Drama