The setting and subject matter of Queen of Katwe is unusual for a Disney film. In Katwe, a slum area of Kampala, Uganda’s capital, we meet proud mother Nakka (Lupita Nyong’o) who is trying to raise her children alone after the death of her husband.
Among her offspring is Phiona (Madina Nalwanga) a shy young girl on the verge of adolescence who discovers she has an extraordinary talent. Hungry and unfed due to her family’s struggles, Phiona happens upon a gathering of youngsters from the slums that play chess after being taught by youth worker Robert Katende (David Oyelowo). Intrigued, she takes up the game.
Katende evangelically advocates the joys of chess to his young charges, and none is more receptive than Phiona, who after training realises she can comfortably beat her peers by thinking many moves ahead.
Against the objections of the organisers, Katende enters the slum children into a prestigious schools chess event. Despite the kids feeling completely out of place, to the extent they sleep on the floor rather than the beds provided for them, they are remarkably successful, with Phiona beating all-comers.
News of the children’s success quickly spreads, and Phiona and her friends are entered into larger and larger chess competitions, even travelling to other countries to compete.
There’s a touch of Disney’s Jamaican bobsledding film Cool Runnings about the children’s journey from the Ugandan slums to international chess champions, with plenty of humour coming from the young performer’s bemusement at the unexpected luxuries and journeys their talents earn them.
Despite the film being feel-good and funny drama, it has serious heart thanks to the performances of Oyelowo, Nyong’o, and in a remarkable debut role Nalwanga. The movie, based on the real-life story of Ugandan chess master Phiona Mutesi, does not shy away from the realities of life in Kampala and the precariousness of its characters’ existence.
Its director Mira Nair, who has lived in the Ugandan capital, captures the essence of life in the city in a way that perhaps a director with less connection to the place couldn’t. It does not feel as if Phiona’s story is being exploited for our entertainment, but told lovingly.
Although she is the film’s hero, she is not portrayed in a one dimensional way. Like any teenage prodigy, she can be selfish and arrogant due to her talents. She flits between being ruthless and crippling self-doubt.
Nyong’o is utterly ferocious as Phiona’s mother, wonderfully portraying her desire to both nurture and protect her daughter while being suspicious about a world beyond Katwe she believes is a distraction from the practicalities of surviving in the slums. Although Katende is more simplistically saintly, Oyelowo excels in making the character extremely likeable.
Queen of Katwe is not a gritty drama, it is after all a Disney film, and at times it perhaps takes a slightly saccharine view of its subject matter. To object to this however feels like approaching the film from the wrong angle. It is a feel-good family film with the depth and performances of a high level drama rather than a dramatic tale with added sweeteners.
With Queen of Katwe, Nair has managed a rare triple feat; making a film that is tremendous fun, educational, and moving, all by lovingly detailing a compelling true story.
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