Underdog sports stories are a dime a dozen, so it’s a small wonder that despite the prevalence of that theme, Queen of Katwe is an impressive feat. Yes, the narrative is structured in a way that feels familiar to anyone acquainted with the conventional design of these accounts. Call it a rags to riches or coming of age or triumph of the spirit or whatever-you-want-to-call-it fable. All those characterizations apply in theory, but labels are a disservice to the sheer distinction of this inspirational drama. Make no mistake, Queen of Katwe is something special.
Queen of Katwe tells the unconventional story of a young illiterate girl from the slums of Uganda who develops into a chess champion. Reflect on that sentence for a moment and consider the unlikelihood of that idea. It would sound contrived if it weren’t actually a true tale. Phiona Mutesi grows up in Katwe which is a neighborhood in Kampala, the capital city of Uganda. Her father has died and now she is solely raised by a single mother, Harriet Nakku (Lupita Nyong’o). Too poor, Phiona has been forced to drop out of school because her family cannot afford to send her there any longer. Now she sells maize. One day, she is invited to join a chess program by Robert Katende (David Oyelowo). He runs a local Christian ministry, the Sports Outreach Institute. Phiona picks up the game quickly and he soon discovers she has a gift.
Queen of Katwe uncovers a side of rural resolve not often depicted in motion pictures. This is Uganda – a movie about African life and its people. Katwe is a community full of humanity with homes made of plywood and tin that sit alongside a lumber yard and a trash dump. It is unapologetic, unglamorous, gritty and yet dynamic and full of spirit. It presents Phiona’s journey in such vivid detail that the experience becomes immersive. Mira Nair brings a remarkable verisimilitude to her work. The Indian director burst onto the scene in 1988 with Salaam Bombay! Then followed it up with Mississippi Masala and Monsoon Wedding. She is a distinctive artist with an ease for the rhythms of various cultures. That’s a refreshing contrast to the abundance of movies set in the U.S. Admittedly the story arc arrives at a redemptive place. This is expected, yet the account never seems “Hollywood”.
All this authenticity would merely be window dressing without charismatic personalities to captivate our interest. Recognizable stars David Oyelowo and Lupita Nyong’o do have key roles and they’re both mesmerizing. However, it’s Ugandan Madina Nalwanga in her very first role that is the central star. She has a naive, unaffected presence. In fact, her attendance of the movie’s premiere at the El Capitan theater in Hollywood was only the 2nd time the actress had ever seen a movie in a cinema. (The first was during filming.) Nair surrounds Madina with local young folks that have never acted as well. The unvarnished charisma of Phiona’s brother (Martin Kabanza) sister (Taryn Kyaze) and chess friends are their virtue. The non-actors add to the authenticity of this portrait. Queen of Katwe is such a vibrant depiction of reality in Uganda that the fascinating chronicle about a chess champion becomes a bonus.
You cannot resist the allure of Queen of Katwe and if you can, then please allow me to pray for your soul. This is a tale that nourishes the heart without saccharin or sentiment. That’s not easy. Chess is such an allegory for life and the movie draws compelling parallels between Phiona’s existence and the politics of the game. The lowly pawn’s promotion to a queen is an attractive rule to which the young girl particularly responds. We understand Phiona’s love of the game and it becomes our affection as well. Chess is probably the least cinematic “sport” I can think of and yet the chess matches are fun, exciting and full of energy. The children have a galvanizing charm when they’re playing that is infectious. If there is a quibble, it’s only that the plot does reach the very conclusion you anticipated even before you sat down to watch. I mean let’s be real. This is a Disney production. Nevertheless, the way it plays out is still a pleasure. The narrative keeps uplifting the heart right down to the delightful end credits. Watching the actors walk out one by one joined by their real-world counterparts is one of the purest joys I’ve had at the cinema all year.