“Am I ready?” asks an apprehensive fifteen year old Ugandan chess player. Her name is Phiona Mutesi (Madina Nalwanga) and she’s about to play the most important game of her life so far. She could become the next national chess champion. But she’s understandably nervous. “You belong here,” states her coach, Robert Katende (David Oyelow) with warm assurance. It’s all she needs to hear.
The scene is the opening moment to the new sports drama Queen of Katwe, the real-life story from Disney of a Ugandan chess prodigy raised by her mother in the shantytown slums of Katwe, an area close to the country’s capital, Kampala. At this point the year is 2011, but once Phiona enters the hall to begin her game, the film circles back to the beginning in 2007, the moment when the poverty-stricken girl first discovered what the game of kings and queens was all about.
Phiona’s father died when she was only three. That left her mother Harriet (Lupita Nyong’o) to do whatever she could to raise Phiona, her sister Night (Taryn “Kay” Kyaze) and her two younger brothers. “Young girl,” calls one-time soccer playing coach of the local missionary, Robert. “Come and sit.” Robert runs a chess club for children and notices Phiona peering through the opened doorway. After beckoning her in, he immediately observes how the girl stands up for herself when picked on by boys. “A fighter,” he smiles. “This is a place for fighters.”
It’s not long before Robert notices Phiona’s natural ability to play. Forced to drop out of school because her mother could not afford to send her there, Phiona’s lack of education proves to be little hindrance in learning the rules of the game. “What do they do?” she asks another young girl, indicating the chess pieces on the board. “They kill each other,” the more experienced player tells her, then holds up a pawn. “The small one can become the big one,” the player explains. “That’s why I like it.”
It’s not long before Phiona is playing, and playing well. “What I’m seeing cannot be true,” declares a young boy as he and others watch Phiona win. But her mother is suspicious and pulls Phiona out of the club, insisting that her daughter return to the streets and sell spices and vegetables to help support the family. It’s coach Robert who has to assure the feisty and suspicious mother that he’s not taking advantage of the girl and using her for gambling. Phiona has already become the champion of the missionary. It’s obvious to all that she’s no ordinary player. “You can see eight moves ahead?” Robert asks after Phiona beats him in yet another game. “Only champions can see that.”
Based on an article for ESPN then a book titled The Queen of Katwe: A Story of Life, Chess, and One Extraordinary Girl’s Dream of becoming a Grandmaster by former senior writer for Sports Illustrated, Tim Crothers, Queen of Katwe may be somewhat formula driven in it’s big screen Disney telling – there’s always that feeling you know what’s coming next and what the outcome will be – but that never stops Phiona’s story from being anything less than genuinely inspirational. Her astonishing achievements against all odds becomes all the more remarkable when you consider where the film is taking place.
Its Uganda slum town setting portrays a hopeless, desolate existence where the harshness of inescapable poverty is a challenge no one could possibly overcome, yet as viewed through Phiona’s teenage and inexperienced eyes, even an area as raw as the slums of Katwe can appear vibrant and full of life. Cinematographer Sean Bobbitt fills his widescreen with vivacious color in a way that the local children might see it, especially if a shantytown existence is the only one they’ve ever known. In one powerfully effective moment when the Katwe chess club rides the rickety missionary bus into the nearby capital of Kampala for the first time, the children happily sing throughout the duration of the short trip, just as children on a bus might. But once they cross city limits into the capital and suddenly view life different from the one they’ve ever known showing smartly dressed people playing cricket or uniformed school children going about their schoolyard business, the singing fades, then stops. The remainder of the ride is done in silence.
Queen of Katwe is never anything less than engrossing. It will raise spirits, and that’s how director Mira Nair (herself a Kampala resident) and screenwriter William Wheeler have designed it. Some of the harshness of Ugandan slum life as described in Crothers’ book may be toned down for a PG Disney studio palate, but the overall quality of playing out a story of a young, uneducated girl raised in abject poverty, who thinks, plays and eventually becomes a champion and performed by a faultless ensemble such as it is here, the film is hard to resist.
MPAA rating: PG Length: 124 Minutes Overall Rating: 8 (out of 10)