Disney's heart-warming 'Queen of Katwe' profiles an unlikely real-life chess champion
Posted October 2, 2016
“QUEEN OF KATWE” — 3 stars — Madina Nalwanga, David Oyelowo, Lupita Nyong'o; PG (thematic elements, an accident scene and some suggestive material); in general release
Hear the word “chessmaster” and you’ll probably picture some kind of bookish middle-aged Russian, brow furrowed and studiously hunched over a game board. But "Queen of Katwe" presents us with a real-life counter image: a 14-year-old girl from impoverished Uganda.
The queen is Phiona (Madina Nalwanga), a young girl whose family appears for all intents homeless, until another woman stops by their shack to complain about rent payments. Along with the other kids in the neighborhood, Phiona gets involved in a chess club at the local mission, not because they love the intellectual game, rather because their parents can't risk the medical bills that might come if they started playing soccer.
The chess club is run by Robert Katende (David Oyelowo), a young father who reluctantly takes a part-time position at the local mission while he waits for the engineering job he studied for. He motivates his young students with one key incentive: beating the rich kids at chess may be the only way they can ever get the better of them.
Phiona's mother Nakku (Lupita Nyong'o) is reluctant to let her children participate; she has problems enough managing her eldest daughter Night (Taryn Kyaze), who is running around with a shady fellow from the city. But Robert eventually persuades her to let Phiona continue with the club, even while her emerging prowess leads her to tournaments and competitions that take her out of the country.
On one level, "Queen of Katwe" is a traditional sports underdog movie as Phiona faces off against older and more experienced competition. But the game itself quickly becomes a vehicle for a powerful story about absorbing life's blows and refusing to accept the cards you are dealt.
Chess comes easily to Phiona, so easily that once she encounters legitimate competition at the tournament level, she becomes quickly discouraged. "Do not be quick to tip your king," counsels Robert after a particularly disappointing encounter.
But her real conflict comes from her background as Phiona struggles to keep involved in the game that is her sole release from her family's crushing poverty. In a telling move, director Mira Nair lets us see Phiona struggle with her pride as she returns home from her tournaments with trophies, only to feel superior to and ashamed by her humble origins.
But rather than hurt her protagonist, seeing this honest depiction makes the story feel all the more real and relatable. This is especially helpful since as impoverished as Katwe appears in the film, it is also beautiful. Nair’s effort to highlight the joy and the glow of the people of Uganda almost makes us disregard the reality of their difficult and uncertain lives, fighting poverty and flooding. “Queen of Katwe” is a triumph of the spirit, but it is presented with a “for all audiences” gloss.
Nalwanga’s performance is well supported by veterans Oyelowo and Nyong’o, and like several other “real-life” stories hitting the screens this fall, the film ends with a nice update on what the myriad characters are up to today.
As the most recent addition to Disney’s 2016 lineup, “Queen of Katwe” offers a nice live-action, real-life complement to its more fantastical films. It may not be enough to inspire a wave of chess enthusiasts, but parents loaded with rec league expenses may wish it would.
“Queen of Katwe" is rated PG for thematic elements, an accident scene and some suggestive material; running time: 124 minutes.
Joshua Terry is a freelance writer and photographer who appeared weekly on "The KJZZ Movie Show" from 2013 to 2016. He also teaches English composition for Salt Lake Community College. Find him online at facebook.com/joshterryreviews.