The colors and rhythms of life in the slums of Uganda are what set “Queen of Katwe” apart from other underdog chess movies.
While Hollywood has long celebrated chess as a great equalizer across race and class — an ideal element for an underdog tale — it rarely turns its lens on modern African culture in such a realistic and respectful way. “Queen of Katwe” is as much a portrait of marginalized life in Uganda as it is of an unlikely champion. In telling the true story of chess prodigy Phiona Mutesi, director Mira Nair captures the vibrancy of a small village, the toughened dignity of its people, and a state of poverty so oppressive you can feel the desperation in the dusty air.
With vivid camerawork by Sean Bobbitt (“12 Years a Slave”) and a cast comprised largely of African unknowns, Nair (“Monsoon Wedding”) drops the viewer into the swirl of color and humanity that is Katwe, a ramshackle community bordered by a trash dump and a lumber yard near Kampala, Uganda, where the filmmaker has lived for almost 30 years. Dirt streets bustle with rickety buses, motorbikes and street vendors. Local musicians make up the soundtrack.
It’s a kinetic setting for a true story so inspiring, it sounds like a made-for-Disney movie: A young, illiterate girl from the streets discovers a natural gift for chess, and with the help of a caring coach, she develops the skills and self-confidence to become a champion. The real Phiona Mutesi is a national hero and educational leader in Uganda who’s on her way to becoming a chess grand master.
Played onscreen by magnetic newcomer Madina Nalwanga, the Queen of Katwe’s story begins in 2007. Her father has just died and her mother, Harriet (Lupita Nyong’o), can barely keep the family fed. They can’t afford school, so Phiona spends her days fetching water for the family and selling corn in the streets. One day, she follows her little brother Brian (fellow first-time actor Martin Kabanza) to an old church where some other kids from the slums are learning to play chess. Coach Robert Katende (David Oyelowo, perfect as always) invites shy Phiona to join. She’s a natural, and her aptitude inspires him to enter the group in competitions.
As in many chess/underdog films, these tournaments are where kids from the wrong side of the tracks get to see how the other half lives. Suddenly, the Katwe kids — all played brilliantly by local children — are envious and insecure.
The film ticks off the years and the tournaments as Katende encourages and Phiona improves, despite her mother’s disapproval. To Harriet, chess is a distraction from selling corn.
The screenplay by William Wheeler at times borders on the trite — “Sometimes the place you are used to is not the place you belong” — but the film is anchored by its colorful setting and solid performances by the entire cast. It’s easy to become absorbed in Phiona’s struggle in Katwe. Knowing she becomes a champion doesn’t diminish the thrill of her journey.
“Queen of Katwe,” a Walt Disney Studios release, is rated PG by the Motion Picture Association of America for “thematic elements, an accident scene and some suggestive material.” Running time: 124 minutes. Three stars out of four.
MPAA Definition of PG: Parental guidance suggested. Some material may not be suitable for children.
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