‘Queen of Katwe’ Review: David Oyelowo and Lupita Nyong’o Star in a Heartwarming Chess Biopic
Disney movies about triumphant characters overcoming great odds often come with a heavy serving of sap, hyperbolizing struggles and achievements with a veneer of Hollywood gloss. Mira Nair’s Queen of Katwe doesn’t do that. While it has sweet and sentimental flourishes, Nair's film about a young Uganda chess champion plays like a sincere biopic that isn’t desperate to pry tears from your eyes or exploit a minority tale for dramatic effect.
Based on the life of Phiona Mutesi, Queen of Katwe begins in 2011 as Phiona (played by newcomer Madina Nalwanga) sits down for the film’s final chess championship. As soon as the two girls shake hands and the chess timer begins, the film flashes back years earlier, when Phiona first discovered chess. After selling corn in the trafficked streets of Katwe, Uganda to help her single mother Nakku (Lupita Nyong’o) support the family, she follows her brother and a group kids into an old shack. There a youth sports coach, Robert Katende (David Oyelowo), serves the kids a meal and teaches them chess. While Phinoa is at first teased and rejected by the other kids, she quickly earns their respect as she rises to become the group's sharpest player.
As much as Nair’s film is about the ambition of a sports champion on the rise, it also explores the divide between economic classes in Uganda. When Robert’s kids arrive at a tournament at the prestigious King’s College school, their spirits are immediately dampened when they see the other kids. One of the Katwe boys drops his oversized backpack to stare in awe at a group of kids dressed in crisp white uniforms playing croquet on the school’s manicured lawn. But there’s no pity in how the film showcases poverty in the midst of privilege; Nair leaves it up to the reactions from the talented cast of young actors to show just how foreign these two worlds are to one another, and how those differences fuel self-doubt and insecurities within the Katwe kids.
The most interesting thread throughout Queen of Katwe is the journey of a girl who isn’t sure where she belongs. At first Phiona struggles with the self-consciousness of being a girl from the slums of Katwe. When she meets a Russian chess player who has her own private jet and computer to practice on, Phiona becomes consumed with hopes of wealth. Eventually as she earns international acclaim, posing for photos and making the front page of newspapers with her trophies, Phiona begins to feel out of place in Katwe. Nair charts the character’s journey from poverty to fame, exploring how the game equalizes differences of backgrounds. Queen of Katwe has its share of underdog cliche and on-the-nose metaphors, but it takes the simple Disney adage of “believe in yourself” and turns it into a moving story about believing in your worth and your abilities.
There’s a lot of tragedy in the real Phinoa’s life that the film could have easily exploited for dramatic fodder, such as the story of her father or sister’s deaths as Mutesi recounted in an ESPN interview the film is partially based on. But Nair never victimizes her characters or twists their stories to heighten the drama. It’s the heartfelt performances by Oyelowo, Nyong’o, and Nalwanga that make Katwe feel so genuine and uplifting. Nyong’o (who is refreshing to see back onscreen after her run in CGI roles) is wonderful as Nakku, but she also steps back to let Nalwanga shine. The young actress brings a quiet vulnerability and pensiveness to Phiona that later shifts into a confident maturity as she grows from a timid girl into a young woman.
But Oyelowo is the beating heart of the film. His Robert is a compassionate man so devoted to his chess team that he sacrifices his health and career to give them opportunities. In one of the best moments, Robert finds his team crying and wanting to quit after they meet their wealthier opponents. Robert immediately breaks into an animated story about a cat and dog chase, hoping around the room wildly as the children laugh. He fluctuates from sweet and silly to profoundly inspiring with a simple metaphor about never giving up.
Nair's film is bursting with life, from the vivid hues of the Uganda and South African sceneries to the buoyant score to the glow the cast bring to their characters. It shirks the typical Disney model of an untouchable, picturesque fantasy by telling a more grounded, human story coursing with love and earnestness. Queen of Katwe feels like the most humble and heartwarming live-action film from the studio in years.