I was leery of this movie – I was leery of a Disney version of Africa, which I didn’t have the heart to see. I was worried they would polish over the poverty and we’d get some “family friendly”, watered down version.
Luckily Mira Nair is sitting in the director’s seat, and I have great confidence in her ability to paint a portrait that is beautiful in its truth. And in fact, Queen of Katwe is beautiful, and it doesn’t shy away from the less desirable side of Africa. The whole point of this film is rooted in poverty. A chess club is started in Katwe because of poverty – because mothers are too afraid of medical expenses should a child break a bone during soccer. So a board game is just more appealing. One of the big draws in getting the children to come in and learn the game is that the chess is served up with a free cup of porridge.
Phiona is poor even in comparison to these other Katwe kids in the chess club. She is being raised by a single mother (Lupita Nyong’o) and helps earn income by selling corn in the streets. But it turns out that Phiona might just be a prodigy – she’s certainly learning faster than anyone expected and quickly outpaces her other competitors, even her teacher. She lobbies for literacy just so she may read chess books in her spare time. Her mother sells possessions for a little extra lamp oil to burn at night so that Phiona may study.
The kids are enthusiastic about their first away tournament playing “city kids” until they get a look at them – poised, clean, well-dressed, book smart. The little Katwe kids are swiftly intimidated, many giving way to hives and hyperventilation. Their coach (David Oyelowo) knows how to steady them, and their superior chess skills carry the day. Phiona is particularly talented, good enough to represent Uganda internationally. As she begins to win, and to travel, she glimpses the life that could be hers if her chess game complies. But now that she’s playing not just to win, but to change her life, and support her family, it’s a lot of extra pressure any little girl’s shoulders.
Mira Nair does a wonderful job bringing Katwe to life. Even the slums are vividly rendered with colour and energy. Yes the story hits familiar beats but Nair bolster’s the film’s predictability with strong performances anchored to weighty characters.
Oyelowo as Coach Katende is as good as he always is, radiating a warmth with maybe a touch of twinkle in his eye, but he knows his role is to prop up the strong women in the cast. Lupita Nyong’o gives a heart-breakingly restrained performance as a young widow who knows her kids are sometimes going to bed hungry. She so carefully balances the fear of the unknown and a mother’s strong will to keep her kids safe with this siren call of a better life that she herself can’t comprehend. She refers to herself as an “uneducated woman” but that only serves to reinforce how fiercely smart she is, whether or not she can read. The film doesn’t talk down to or look down on anyone. Nyong’o is so sensitive in her portrayal it really elevates the whole film. Madina Nalwanga, though, is the revelation. She’s the unknown cast by Nair to star as Phiona. Despite having never acted, she clearly has the grace and poise to make this her career, and it has to help that though Madina escaped the slums with dance rather than chess, her story is eerily similar to Phiona’s.
Queen of Katwe would feel a lot like any other underdog tale, except for its setting. Nair makes sure that Africa comes alive. A small girl reduces chess to this: “a small one can become a big one.” Chess is still fairly boring to watch, on film and in person I’m sure, but when you give it such a strong parallel to their lives – where the small can become big, where the Queen is most powerful, it starts to strike a chord. Is it unabashedly feel-good? Yes, it is. But isn’t it nice to have such a positive story out of Africa for once?