“Queen of Katwe” Offers Inspiration, In Spite of Formula

Queen of Katwe

Queen of Katwe (Mira Nair, 2016)

From Indian-American director Mira Nair (The Namesake) comes this sweet , if also saccharine, tale of how one very talented and smart, if also desperately poor, Ugandan girl was able to become an international chess star. Based on a true story, the film follows young Phiona (newcomer Madina Nalwanga) as she rises from the squalor of poverty-stricken Katwe – a neighborhood in Kampala, Uganda’s capital – through the power of education, courtesy of a local athletic coach, Robert Katende, played by David Oyelowo (Selma), who teaches not only soccer but also the “Game of Kings.” Though he is not, initially, looking for a champion, he knows one when he sees one, and when Phiona shows up for his afternoon classes, he recognizes her potential. Soon, she will be the queen of them all.

But first, she will face challenges, foremost among them her mother, Harriet, played by Lupita Nyong’o (12 Years a Slave). She’s against her children (Phiona has a brother and a sister) doing anything that takes them away form the business of making a living in the market, and suspicious of members of a social class above hers, but Phiona has a strong will, and Robert is persuasive, and soon Phiona and her brother are learning chess (the elder sister has other desires). Phiona proves the best player in her class, and when she and her teammates beat the students at a nearby private school, they suddenly become the pride of Uganda, where before they were shunned. It is not too long before Phiona is off to tournaments outside the country. But victory comes at a cost, and she may lose her way.

This is, whatever the truth of the story, a Disney film, which means it follows a traditional three-act narrative structure, complete with dramatic reversals, ending with an uplifting conclusion where all of Phiona’s demons are conquered. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it all feels a little too pat, and the constant swelling musical score does not help matters. What works is that this is a tale of Africans helping themselves; there are no whites lending a hand to helpless people of color. Class conflict – true, in this case, inherited from the former British colonial power – is among Ugandans, and Ugandans are the focus of the story. It’s refreshing to have a major company like Disney not insist on adding what would here be inappropriate white voices. Oyelowo is always good, and here he makes a fine mentor, strong with moral authority. Nyong’o is equally compelling. The unknown star – Nalwanga – is the real find, since she firmly holds her own against her elders, as do the many other young actors who make up her peer group. See it for them, if not for the ordinary, plodding way the movie is told, and for the final moment, at the end, where we see the real people of the story standing next to the actors who portrayed them; it’s one of the most genuine moments in this imperfect, yet still moving, movie.

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