[NOTE: This is a repost of our review from TIFF; Queen of Katwe is in limited release, starting today]
In the past decade, Disney has carved out a nice niche of sports dramas. Although chess is a game rather than a sport, Mira Nair’s Queen of Katwe still stands alongside some of the studio’s best efforts, and it’s the best family film involving chess since the charming 1993 film Searching for Bobby Fischer (admittedly, there wasn’t a lot of competition in this very specific genre). However, unlike Bobby Fischer, Nair expands her story from a family drama and puts it onto an international stage by focusing on the impoverished Phiona Mutesi, who came from the slums of Katwe, Uganda to become a chess champion. At times, Queen of Katwe seems like it wants to encompass everything, from economic mobility to family responsibility, and while it makes the movie run a little long, the film never loses its sweetness or charm.
The story begins in 2007 when Phiona (Madina Nalwanga) is living in Katwe with her mother Nakku Harriet (Lupita Nyong’o), brothers Mugabi Brian (Martin Kabanza) and Richard (Ivan Jacobo), and sister Night (Taryn Kyaze). She sells corn on the streets so the family can scrape by, but one day comes across a chess program taught by Robert Katende (David Oyelowo). Although shy at first, Phiona quickly finds herself adept at chess and soaring to the front of the class. As Phiona begins to excel at chess and win at tournaments, she sees the game as a way to lift her family out of poverty.
One of many uplifting aspects of Queen of Katwe is how it holds up chess as an egalitarian game. Rather than focusing on a sport that requires equipment, it’s not too difficult to fashion a chessboard and pieces, and more than once we see Phiona using a checkered bedsheet and bottlecaps to practice her game. It’s a game that tests mental acuity, and even though Phiona is illiterate (her mother can’t afford to send her or her siblings to school), she’s skilled at chess. It’s a powerful message that says no matter where someone comes from, they can go far if given an opportunity. Queen of Katwe doesn’t try to fashion this into a political statement about the need for social programs or about how an individual can pull themselves up by their bootstraps. It’s a story about supportive adults like Harriet and Robert nurturing Phiona’s talent.
The film is canny enough to make sure Phiona has an arc as well, and it’s one that digs into the complexity of her economic station. A simplistic approach to Fiona’s story would be a basic rags-to-riches tale, but Nair realizes that the road out of poverty is far from simple, and that every backslide and every defeat can be gut-wrenching. Every time Phiona goes to a tournament in a foreign location, she gets a glimpse of a life that’s better than her own, and then it’s snatched away from her. And every loss isn’t just a loss. A loss means she’s taking a step back from being able to support her family. Those are some serious stakes, and it pushes Queen of Katwe towards a weightier message than just “winning is good.”
There are times when the message can be a bit overbearing and the metaphors painfully heavy handed, but in these times, it’s important to remember that Queen of Katwe is a PG family film, and that for younger members of the audience, using chess as a metaphor about life will register as a good way of conveying important lessons. It may be a bit pedantic for the adult members of the audience, but it’s not that bothersome when it’s in service of an uplifting tone.
Where Queen of Katwe strains a bit is in trying to figure out how to service all three of its main characters. It works relatively well when following Phiona and Robert, but it has trouble figuring out how to keep Harriet in the story. That’s not to say that Harriet’s scenes are bad, but sometimes they have difficulty connecting to Phiona’s journey since Harriet doesn’t know anything about chess. Sometimes it feels like Harriet’s story is coming from a different movie about a single mother trying to raise her children in Katwe, and it can be a bridge too far to tie it into Phiona’s narrative. And yet, the scenes mostly work thanks to Nyong’s tremendous performance. Even though she’s only 33, Nyong’o acts with a wisdom and maturity far beyond her years, and in her turn as Harriet, you can see a woman who has had to toughen up to provide for her family in an uncaring world.
Stacked alongside Disney’s other sports-related films like The Rookie, Invincible, Miracle, and Million Dollar Arm, Queen of Katwe is the best sports movie yet from the studio. It’s a film that’s thoughtful, charming, and heartwarming. It’s nice to have sports heroes who are physically gifted, but it’s nice to see a movie that celebrates a smart woman at the top of her game.
Queen of Katwe opens in limited release today and expands nationwide next Friday, September 30th.