Disney’s Queen of Katwe appears to follow the standard formula of sports movie: take an underdog (bonus points for a disadvantaged upbringing) and chart their rise to the top ranks until they overcome some snooty favorite. Mira Nair’s film distinguishes itself through peerless acting, a vibrant but patient setting, and consistent application of its chosen sport as thematic metaphor. The film focuses on a young, poor female chess prodigy from Uganda named Phiona Mutesi (Madina Nalwanga). Throughout the story, chess is used as a mechanism for improvement and a way to escape her situation. Ultimately, Queen of Katwe champions the intellect of individuals, and shows us a world where young girls and boys can apply that intellect to improve their lives.
The film is content to take its time with this story, which is based on actual events collected in a book by ESPN writer Tim Crothers. Set in the slum of Katwe in Kampala, Uganda, the plot takes place over a number of years, and starts with Phiona completely ignorant of the game of chess. Instead, she sells corn for her mother Nakku Harriet (Lupita Nyong’o) with some other children, can’t afford to go to school, and her only prospects are represented by her older sister Night, who must rely on a man to provide money for her. One day, she follows her friend Benjamin (Ethan Nazario Lubega) to the missionary Robert Katende (David Oyelowo), who teaches chess to children in an effort to develop their problem solving skills and ability to think through a challenge.
The film is wonderfully patient with its plot. You don’t become a chess prodigy overnight, and by stretching out the narrative to its full-length, we are treated to the full range of Phiona’s experiences. These obviously focus heavily on her developing chess game, but also include difficulties at home, learning to read, and fighting with her mother. The slowness also manages to imbue the film with the plodding pace of a rural, slummy setting. This isn’t to say the environment is boring, though, as Nair has a wonderful eye for color that always keeps the screen interesting.
The acting in Queen of Katwe is magnificent. Phiona, portrayed by newcomer Madina Nalwanga, begins the film with a naiveté and ignorance, but the second she is given an opportunity to take matters into her own hands, she pounces. Though she has only learned the basics of the game, Phiona reasons out advanced tactics and endgame strategies that signify her latent prowess to her teacher. As she improves and begins playing in tournaments, her success goes to her head a little bit and she begins to lament her home life. Lupita Nyong’o astounds as Phiona’s mother, simultaneously portraying the wounded pride of a widowed single mother and the embarrassment of being unable to provide a better life for her children. She’s great, and another supporting actress nomination is not out of the question.
David Oyelowo is similarly stunning as Robert Katende. He is a college-educated man who successfully rose up from the same slums as some of his children, and he is dedicated to teaching them that the only way they can take control of their own lives is through intelligence, reason, and planning. He treats his children with respect and passion, allowing them to stand or fall on their own merits. Yet, when their emotional immaturities surface, he is understanding and helpful. It is a great character, and Oyelowo is an absolute master.
Chess is an ideal forum for the kinds of lessons Katende wishes to teach. Keen strategy is rewarded, blunders are punished, and the only relevant skill is intellectual. One of the primary strengths of Queen of Katwe is the dedication that it shows towards utilizing the metaphoric power of the game of chess. The film employs these metaphors throughout. Early on, it is Katende explaining that through careful planning one can find a safe square for a bishop, just as the children can find safety in their own lives. Later, the concepts of sacrifice, tactical decision-making, and even the importance of winning or losing are all employed for their own thematic messages. In one of the more stirring sequences, Katende explains that it isn’t important if you lose – failure is a part of living. What’s important is making sure you set up the pieces for a new game.
The film exploits these metaphors directly. Phiona’s journey reflects that of a promoted pawn, a concept introduced during her first chess lesson. If a pawn reaches the final row, it can be promoted to the more-powerful queen. As Phiona’s friend says, “And so, the little one can become the big one”. This metaphor is set up early and directly referenced later in Phiona’s climactic chess game – not by words, but by the camera and Nair’s direction. It is a gorgeous combination of story, theme, and metaphor, and is carried out by visuals alone. As Fiona rises through the ranks, she truly becomes the Queen of Katwe. It’s beautiful.
One would be forgiven for fearing that Disney would take this inspiring true story and spit out a saccharine piece of smaltz, but Queen of Katwe is far too powerful and studied for such classification. It features wonderful performances from some of the best actors today while also introducing amazing fresh talent. Its use of color makes the slum of Katwe pop off the screen, but it also isn’t afraid to show the harsh realities of the environment. Finally, by concentrating on focused chess metaphors, the film is able to suggest multiple potent themes, the most clear of which is the power of the individual human intellect to assert control over one’s own destiny. Queen of Katwe is a reminder that ability and intellect can come from anywhere, and when applied correctly, can make dreams come true.