“Queen of Katwe” A Crowd-Pleaser
Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades
How do you make an interesting movie about a thoughtful, slow-moving game like chess? Just ask director Mura Nair.
Nair deftly equates the elements of chess to her young subject’s life. Finding a “safe space” whenever your opponent is on the offensive. Against all odds, marching a pawn all the way across the board to turn it into a queen.
“In chess,” one young player explains, “the small one can become the big one.”
In short, it doesn’t matter how strong or rich you are, the game can teach you to “strategize your way to a better life.”
It did just that for the real-life Phiona. She went on to become one of the first two women in Ugandan history to become titled chess players. Phiona was awarded a Woman Candidate Master after her performance in the 40th Chess Olympiad in Turkey.
Newcomer Madina Nalwanga stars as Phiona Mutesi. Nearly 700 girls were interviewed for the part. Well cast, Nalwanga gives a subtle, nuanced performance as a girl struggling against poverty, self-doubt, and prejudice.
Oscar-winner Lupita Nyong’o (“12 Years a Slave”) is spectacular as Phiona’s headstrong mother, Nakku Harriet. She exudes a determination to protect her daughter from disappointment, while striving to keep their family afloat, living in a hut they can ill afford.
And David Oyelowo (“Selma”) is charismatic as Robert Katende, the coach who discovered Phiona while conducting a Christian missionary program for slum children.
Don’t leave before the credits, because tears will sting your eyes as you see the actors meet the actual people they played. Kind of like that moment at the end of “Schindler’s List.”
Surprisingly, “Queen of Katwe” is a Disney movie. Mura Nair likes to joke that this is the first Disney film set in Africa that doesn’t have a single animal in it.
Based on a story by Tim Corothers in ESPN magazine (“The Queen of Katwe: A Story of Life, Chess, and One Extraordinary Girl’s Dream of Becoming a Grandmaster”), the screenplay was penned by William Wheeler. Despite her earlier success with “Monsoon Wedding,” Nair was forced to film a high-concept short to alleviate Disney’s concerns about an odd kind of sports film set entirely in Africa. But it turns out Disney has a soft spot for “underdog” sports films.
Nair described “Queen of Katwe” as “a radical film for Disney in many ways ... It has beauty and barbarity side-by-side.”
A movie with a female lead and an all-black cast directed by a woman of color, the movie was a long shot. But Mura Nair was determined, just as dedicated as any underdog in a Disney movie. She kept in mind the slogan of a film school she founded in Uganda: “If we don’t tell our own stories, no one will.”