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Queen of Katwe Review: A Vibrant Underdog Tale

By  · Published on September 14th, 2016

Queen of Katwe is a Vibrant Underdog Tale

Mira Nair’s film on the young Ugandan chess prodigy is deeply humanistic and rich with details.

The true tale of Phiona Mutesi, a young Ugandan chess prodigy living in the slums of Katwe, is nothing short of a miraculous Cinderella story. So on paper, Disney is as perfect a match as they come to put Phiona’s story on the big screen for a feel-good, uplifting and inspiring couple of hours. Here is the thing though: what makes Queen of Katwea vibrant film that boisterously bustles with life – stirring isn’t that reliable, family-friendly studio’s stamp. It is instead the signature, genuinely humanistic touch of Mira Nair (Monsoon Wedding, The Namesake) that gently and even lovingly lingers over every imaginable element of Phiona’s disadvantaged world the film centers around. Take Nair out of the equation, and you’d be looking at another tired formulaic underdog flick with all the right components but no heart. But in Nair’s hands, Queen of Katwe radiates with rich, considered attention to detail in each facet of Phiona’s journey.

Adapted from ESPN writer Tim Crothers’ book by William Wheeler, Queen of Katwe follows our young heroine (Madina Nalwanga, stellar in capturing her character’s quiet resilience) from an early age, through a life that offers almost no options to her, her siblings and her single, protective and sacrificing mother Nakku Harriet (Lupita Nyong’o, solid and versatile in her first non-CGI-role since winning an Oscar for 12 Years A Slave.) As a poverty-stricken school dropout and a kid living in slums, Phiona helps her mother with daily chores, looks after her siblings and attends a sports outreach program. Grabbing the attention of Robert Katende, (David Oyelowo delivering a wholesome, soulful performance) a kindly coach in charge of the program’s activities for underprivileged children, Phiona steadily learns how to play chess and wows everyone with her strategic intelligence.

Her first unofficial chess instructor, a young girl with a mischievous demeanor that offsets Phiona’s quietness, says, the thing she likes best about chess is how the small one could become the big one. And that triggers Phiona’s further interest: a trapped pawn herself on a tricky board game, overshadowed by those who are granted a more fluid freedom to steer their lives towards a direction of their choosing. With her motivating coach Katende’s careful training, Phiona soon becomes unbeatable on local and regional levels. In fact, when she receives her first tournament trophy – at an out-of-town contest Phiona competes at, after much convincing of her mother Harriet – the prize-giver praises her toughness and fighting spirit. “Such aggressiveness in a girl is a big treasure,” she says.

That statement also sums up the film’s attitude towards its nearly all-female protagonists. Through Nair’s lens, we end up watching women fighters daring to overturn the hand they’re dealt not with passivity, but with a healthy dose of ambition and even aggression. In that regard, Queen of Katwe plays like a boxing movie (or any sports training movie), examples of which are dime a dozen this year with the likes of Bleed for This and Hand of Stone, with stories that usually follow a common path: a hungry trainee emerges, flourishes with discipline, declines with overconfidence and eventually achieves his goal with a renewed sense of purpose. And such is the case with Queen of Katwe, which equates smarts to the bodily strength required by sports, and outsmarting one’s opponent to winning physical fistfights.

Cinematographer Sean Bobbitt (also of 12 Years a Slave) deserves hearty praise here for capturing the rhythms of Katwe not with pity or condescension, but with humanizing empathy. Under Nair’s direction, he ensures we miss nothing in Phiona’s world, and helps us easily slip into her shoes when, after returning from a tournament in Russia, she struggles to fit back into her former mold. This film also has a neck to keep the viewer on their toes even when it (naturally) doesn’t explain any of the intricacies taking place on the chessboard, and despite the fact that we all know the eventual happy ending. The source of its quietly lurking suspense, as we come to realize, isn’t in or about the game after all. It’s in Phiona’s high-stakes life, where her unrefined potential could mean the world to her and her family.

Freelance writer and film critic based in New York. Bylines at Film Journal, Time Out NY, Movie Mezzanine, Indiewire, and others.