Queen of Katwe

Reviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 10/20/16 16:20:36

"The strongest piece on the board right now."
5 stars (Awesome)

I suspect that even writers and directors who most want to be known for their complex, non-mainstream works would secretly like to have something like "Queen of Katwe" on their IMDB page, because it does feel good to make others feel good and to hear that you've given someone hope, even if this sort of victorious-underdog story isn't your usual thing. There are probably hundreds of scripts along those lines floating around Hollywood at any given time, but not many attract the likes of Mira Nair and this film's talented cast and become something quite so terrific.

In 2007, Phiona Mutesi (Madina Nalwanga) is eleven years old, one of four children of widow Nakku Harriet (Lupita Nyong'o) living in the Ugandan slums of Katwe, striving to make ends meet by selling vegetables in the street. Elsewhere in the town, Robert Katende (David Oyelowo) is unable to secure an engineering job and so starts to work part-time coaching kids at soccer for a local miniature - and for the kids who don't play soccer, he starts a chess club. Phiona and her brother Mugabi Brian (Martin Kabanza) initially are drawn in by the porridge Robert serves - and are shunned for being dirty and smelly even by local standards - but Phiona soon starts beating everyone with sophisticated techniques. When Robert learns that she's illiterate and this couldn't have been reading his books, he realizes that he has a prodigy on his hands, and helping her reach her potential will be a much larger task.

Nair and screenwriter William Wheeler (adapting a magazine article and book by Tim Crothers) lay what a young audience can get out of this movie out very clearly during the lessons: A small pawn that makes its way through the gauntlet to the other end of the board, despite having little power, can become a queen, and more generally, success comes in large part by anticipation and planning. That's not the entirety of the story, but even if it were, the filmmakers make it go down easy by making sure that the kids are in large part teaching each other with enthusiasm rather than receiving lectures, the whole premise being to actively respect the kids' intelligence. That extends to not giving a complete primer on the game beyond the bits that will be important symbolically, and trusting that the viewer can process the often rapid-fire exchanges of pieces for their meaning, rather than stopping to explain.

The trio of actors in the lead roles are also excellent; chess can be an abstract, internal game, but there's never any doubt about what these people are thinking. Madina Nalwanga is the obvious great discovery here; though in a position where Phiona must necessarily be more mature than many girls her character's age who are watching the film, she (and most of the other young actors playing members of the chess club) is always on target with how genius and maturity don't always arrive in sync. With the bulk of the film following her over four years that can change a girl drastically (ages 11 to 15), it would be easy for her to seem not quite right or err on the side of capability; instead, Nalwanga is at her best when Phiona has bitten off a bit more than she can chew, or when she starts to take her genius for granted. She does an exceptional job of presenting a young person with a gift embracing what makes her extraordinary and recognizing how that makes maintaining her connection to the world that created her a tricky thing.

Meanwhile, Lupita Nyong'o and Davis Oyelowo play the characters pulling Phiona in different directions with contrasting sorts of excellence. Oyelowo plays Robert with almost incandescent energy, throwing himself into the part of the determined teacher after initial reluctance with gusto, spending much of his time on screen with an inviting smile and much of the rest presenting a patient empathy, touching the points he's given about his character's unfortunate backstory without making his basic goodness seem less likely. It's a little harder to warm up to Nyong'o's character - the mother had to be more of a disciplinarian than the surrogate father - but it's a performance that grows in appeal by the end of the movie; she makes Harriet unafraid of the ego many in the film will blast her for even as she's fully cognizant of how precarious her family's lives can be. She and Nalwanga are given different ways of making mother and daughter headstrong, but find common ground in it nonetheless.

Nair and her crew make it an impressive film to look at as well. It's a bit patronizing and privileged to talk about how they find a certain beauty in a colorful slum compared to a prosperous city's right angles and lack of garish colors, but she certainly can use Phiona's environment and its extremes to highlight various themes: The early crowding and chaos, with faded yellow water containers highlighting just how close to the edge the family lives, primes the audience to accept some of what happens later as random but also an inevitable bit of horrible luck. Class divides are omnipresent, with small differences made into gulfs; it's fun to watch the chess men and boards the various characters use, from the bottle caps Phiona and her brother use at home to how the better players within the program get sets in better repair to the quality at international tournaments. Moscow looks almost unreal as the Ugandans' plane approaches it, while Phiona's trophies are put to practical use in her home. There's not a visual in the film that doesn't seem to be made with purpose, with most also just being a pleasure to look at.

"Queen of Katwe" is exactly the sort of film it looks like, but it's that sort of film given all the care that something meant to inspire children deserves. It's more than the sum of its good intentions, but an entertaining way for anyone to spend a couple of hours, coming out feeling better than when going in.

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