Disney's 'Queen Of Katwe' Is Worth All Your Money [Review]
Queen of Katwe still image courtesy of Walt Disney Studios.
Chess movies are typically for nerdy types who relish in seeing mental agility trump physical brawn. Films such as Searching For Bobby Fischer and Pawn Sacrifice excelled in showering praise on the legendary American chess star in a way that would add some Hollywood gloss to his rather troublesome real life persona. Fortunately, none of that is evident in Disney‘s movie about Phiona Mutesi, a real life hero in her native Katwe, Uganda. Instead of serving up a heavy dose of saccharine, Queen of Katwe delivers a strong showing as to why diversity matters in cinema, how sincerity and community play its part in excelling greatness and why this film is as nuanced as anything the House of Mouse has had to offer in years.
If you haven’t seen the trailer or been paying attention to the project as it has been developing, Queen of Katwe is directed by Mira Nair (Mississippi Masala) and stars Lupita Nyong’o, David Oyelowo and serves as the film debut of Madina Nalwanga as Phiona Mutesi. Taking place over a few years, the story focuses on Phiona Mutesi’s journey from an impoverished and frustrated youth to a genius-level chess-master-in-the-making. While selling corn on the highly trafficked streets of Katwe, Uganda, Phiona has dropped out of school to help her family—led by single mother Nakku (Nyong’o)—make money. Curious about her brother’s secretive journey to a mysterious old shack, she follows him and stumbles onto a youth sports coach, Robert Katende (Oyelowo), who feeds the kids with meals and educates them on the fine art of playing chess.
Teased and tormented about her appearance and smell, Phiona almost gives up the opportunity to learn a new skill. Instead, she showcases her fiery fighting spirit and earns her peers respect as she becomes the chess group’s rising star and most valuable player. “To be African is to be an underdog in the world,” the real-life Phiona Mutesi said to ESPN the Magazine‘s Tim Crothers in April of 2013. “To be Ugandan is to be an underdog in Africa. To be from Katwe is to be an underdog in Uganda. And finally, to be female is to be an underdog in Katwe.” Queen of Katwe, which is based on the ESPN article, beautifully showcases the trials and triumphs of the small area within the city of Kampala, which is Uganda’s capital. Director Mira Nair does an exceptional job in framing the beauty, the struggle and the resiliency of a community who hasn’t been seen on a big screen since 2006’s Last King of Scotland.
In the time spent in Uganda where the film was shot, Disney and its producers spent an estimated $6 million locally, which benefitted the real community greatly as it attempts to become a global tourist attraction. Nair, who already built a strong reputation in cinema, turns her lens on modern African culture and gives it such a realistic and harrowing frame. Queen of Katwe offers cinephiles a view at life in Africa without being stereotypical or disrespectful. In telling the true story of Phiona Mutesi, a chess prodigy, Uganda and the small area within the capital are portrayed respectfully in their struggle, even as you witness the state of poverty and despair of seeing people walk for miles just to obtain clean drinking water. Queen of Katwe never adds a fairy tale moment or elements of exaggerated pity while showing the native residents, the chess group or the talented young actors, which is an inspiring way to experience a film.