One girl’s triumphant path to becoming a chess champion.
Mira Nair’s Queen of Katwe is one of those inspirational films that manages to keep you on the edge of your seat in spite of the fact that you know exactly where it’s going. The story hits a lot of beats that will feel familiar to anyone who has seen their share of underdog sports movies – a person rises from humble surroundings, works their way through the ranks, learns some life lessons and becomes a champion – but the characters are so well-drawn and the cultural setting feels so fresh that the movie never feels tired or lazy.
Our tale begins in Katwe, a slum located in Kampala, Uganda. Phiona Mutesi (Madina Nalwanga) lives in a weathered shack with her mother (Lupita Nyong’o, 12 Years a Slave) and siblings, and spends her days selling maize in the local marketplace in an effort to help her family pay the rent. Phiona and her family are surviving, but there’s never quite enough food and no one can afford nice clothes.
Enter Robert Katende (David Oyelowo, Selma), a youth minister who works with a local missionary program. Robert teaches a lot of the local kids how to play soccer, but his real passion is chess. Eventually, he persuades a number of local children – including Phiona – to let him teach them how to play. Phiona takes to the game like a duck to water, and soon begins developing skills that rival (and eventually surpass) Robert’s. Over time, she gains increasing success as she competes in various tournaments, but every new success comes with new hurdles to overcome.
One of Nair’s great directorial strengths is her ability to capture a rich, full-flavored portrait of a vibrant culture (just look at her work on the excellent Monsoon Wedding or Vanity Fair), and Queen of Katwe certainly showcases that ability. Katwe isn’t merely a backdrop for the story, but a place that feels lived-in and real: you feel that all the minor characters you bump into have lives and stories beyond what’s included in the film (an effect that far too many films fail to achieve). The location also gives Nair an opportunity to fill the screen with all sorts of bold, bright colors, and the abundance of visual information and background activity present in most scenes makes the film feel larger than it really is.
The cast is a fine mix of familiar pros and newcomers, and there isn’t a weak link across the board. David Oyelowo fills the “coach who delivers rousing speeches” role exceptionally well, and adds a lot of nice quiet touches around the edges of what is largely a big, commanding performance. Lupita N’yongo delivers strong work in a subplot that arguably has as much emotional weight as the central storyline, detailing the strength, fear and determination of a woman just trying to keep a roof over her family’s head. However, the film’s finest turn comes from Nalwanga, who doesn’t ring a single false note in a movie that could have easily felt artificial. Let’s hope we see her again soon.
At certain points, Nair runs into the same problem faced by Edward Zwick’s Pawn Sacrifice: games of chess aren’t as easy to dramatize as other cinematic “big games,” because a lot of audience members don’t have a full understanding of the rules. Like Zwick, she steers around this problem by focusing on the emotions of the players and their supporters than rather than on the actual moves being made. Indeed, Phiona’s biggest challenge isn’t finding a way to defeat her peers – she clearly has the knowledge and talent required to do so – but rather overcoming her own insecurity. “You belong here!” Oyelowo tells her. It’s a message she struggles to internalize. When she finally gets there, the impact is enormous.
Queen of Katwe (Blu-ray) offers an excellent 1080p/2.40:1 transfer. This is a bright, vibrant film with a lot of striking colors, and it looks terrific in HD. Detail is excellent, depth is strong, black levels are impressive and the imagery just pops off the screen. A real showcase disc. The DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio track is strong too, blending some fairly complex sound design nicely with the dialogue and score. Supplements include an audio commentary with Nair, some featurettes (“A Spark of Inspiration,” “Those Who Guide,” “The Future is Bright,” “In the Studio with Alicia Keys” and “A Fork, A Spook and a Knight”), deleted scenes, two music videos and a digital copy.
Queen of Katwe is inspirational drama done right: a well-crafted, heartwarming story the whole family will enjoy. Recommended.