The latest film from Indian-American director Mira Nair, responsible for the critically acclaimed “Salaam Bombay!” and Golden Lion-winning “Monsoon Wedding,” “Queen of Katwe” is a joint effort between Walt Disney Pictures and ESPN Films. The film tells the real-life story of Phiona Mutesi, an extraordinary young girl from Katwe, Uganda.
Phiona, who manages to become an internationally recognized chess master despite her humble beginnings, is an incredibly sympathetic character. Having grown up in the slums, Mutesi spends her days selling corn and caring for her brothers until she stumbles upon a small group playing chess in a makeshift building on her street. The children’s instructor, Mr. Katende, encourages the willful Phiona to join in, and from there the story truly begins. Mr. Katende encourages his prodigy to look beyond the boundaries of her birthplace, and guides her though a number of chess-inspired life lessons.
In many ways, “Queen of Katwe” is a movie many audiences have seen before. It is an inspirational biopic rich with sports metaphors, tense game-day moments and powerful one-liners about the triumph of the human spirit. Though, in more ways than one, Disney’s bright narrative breaks from the past. “Queen of Katwe” is a movie about Africa that does not focus on war, strife or animals. The movie has no “white saviors” and is filmed where the original story took place. Moreover, a few elements of the plot’s rags-to-riches formula are surprisingly nuanced.
After Tim Crothers first uncovered the story in an article for ESPN, Disney quickly took on the project. Despite the company’s artificial tendencies, Disney executive Tendo Nagenda, whose father is Ugandan, took care that the story be portrayed authentically. Nair was essential to fulfilling Nagenda’s vision. The Indian-born director not only has a Ugandan husband, but also runs a film school in the Ugandan town of Masha.
Nair’s intimate relationship with the East African country is evident throughout the film. At times the predictability of the plot is countered by the bright and very real depictions of life in Katwe. Nair’s history of making socially and politically provocative documentaries also finds its way into the film; the plot occasionally ventures outside its narrative to challenge cliches about living in poverty and the power of education. However, aside from these brief moments of complexity, the storyline follows a crowd-pleasing formula that seems slightly emotionally manipulative.
Beyond Nair’s direction, the impressive cast also works to enrich the “Queen of Katwe.” Madina Nalwanga, a newcomer Ugandan teenager, plays the strong-willed though emotionally mute Phiona with convincingly clarity. At several moments in the film, it seems impossible to separate the wise-eyed Nalwanga from her character. Nalwanga’s authenticity is only heightened by the performances of her fellow young actors, all of whom are local Ugandans, some even hailing from the tiny town of Katwe.
Unsurprisingly, Lupita Nyong’o and David Oyelowo, who plays Robert Katende, do not disappoint. Nyong’o, best known for her Oscar-winning performance in “12 Years a Slave,” plays Phiona’s mother, the film’s subtle hero. The equally talented Oyelowo (Lincoln, The Butler) plays Phiona’s mentor and coach, Robert Katende. Oyelowo’s persuasive portrayal manages to minimize the character’s predictability and well-worn feel.
For many reasons, “The Queen of Katwe” could very well have been a flop. Its Disney backing and formulaic plot seemed all but promising. However, Nagenda’s foresight and Nair’s direction kept the film firmly grounded in authenticity. Moreover, Nalwanga, Nyong’o and Oyelowo add life to the plot through their engaging performances.
Still, what makes the film significant is not its cast or direction, but rather its norm-defying power; it breaks away from the misleading depictions of Africa that typically dominate Hollywood. Despite its familiar story line and emotional manipulations, “Queen of Katwe” offers a glimpse into Ugandan youth culture that is worth a watch.