Chess is honestly one of the more challenging board games out there. It teaches strategy, patience, and uses your brain processes to a much higher capacity. I’ve never mastered playing it, but there are some who immediately take to it. Chess, as intense as it can be, has been the subject of several movies the last few years, “Pawn Sacrifice” and “The Dark Horse” chief among them. Director Mira Nair (“Monsoon Wedding,” “Amelia”) adds to that list with “Queen of Katwe,” a film about much more than a game.
Phiona Mutesi (Madina Nalwanga) lives in the slums of Katwe, a section of the capital city of Kampala in Uganda. Her father has recently passed away and her mother, Nakku Harriet (Lupita Nyong’o), is struggling to keep a roof over the heads of her children and food in their stomachs. Phiona cannot afford to go to a nice school, but she and her brother end up joining a youth group, led by Robert Katende (David Oyelowo), an unemployed engineer who is teaching the local kids how to play chess.
So impressed by Phiona and her skills, Robert begins enrolling her and the rest of the teens in competitions around the country. And Phiona, a true chess prodigy, is winning left and right. As she rises as a chess champion, competitions take her to different parts of the globe. She’s experiencing things she never has before. Her mother, afraid that Phiona is becoming to engrossed in this new world, is afraid that the place she comes from and the life she’s living will no longer be enough for her and she will become bitter and disappointed.
“Queen of Katwe” has Disney written all over it. The film touches on deeper issues, but shies away from getting too personal with it. It keeps to its uplifting path. It isn’t as intense as many other chess films, but what it lacks in intensity, it makes up for in warmth, heart, and its inspirational message. Mira Nair and writer William Wheeler also tackle emotional issues. The fact that Phiona’s mother is reticent about her daughter competing and doesn’t immediately give her support is realistic. Especially in their situation. Harriet struggles with trying to keep her family together and fed. To her, playing chess isn’t going to make Phiona any money, so why should she let her bother with it? It’s a very mature point of view Nair takes, to show this not-so-supportive parent, but one who still wants the best for her child.
Of course Lupita Nyong’o and David Oyelowo are excellent. Oyelowo’s character struggles with his own lack of career. He works part-time while his wife shoulders almost all of the financial burden. He finds passion in helping Phiona and the rest of the kids. And the more he helps them, the further he strays from a job in engineering and more toward a job that ties in with the kids. Nyong’o embodies all the hardship, worry, and trepidation that is realistic of her character and newcomer Madina Nalwanga does well and manages to display a range of emotion for her first time out.
“Queen of Katwe” is a generally uplifting film. It runs about fifteen to twenty minutes too long, which causes it to drag during the latter part of the second act and into the third. I like that it tackles family issues and multiple emotions, even though it doesn’t more thoroughly delve into them the way it could have. There are also some contrived moments that are meant to move the plot along, but feel a bit unnatural. Regardless, it’s Nyong’o and Oyelowo’s performances that are the highlight of the film. “Queen of Katwe” has spirit and the fact that it’s based on a true story will ultimately move you.
"Queen of Katwe" is spirited and uplifting. Lupita Nyong'o and David Oyelowo, especially, put in great performances. The film explores some serious issues like poverty, but manages to maintain heart throughout.