Walt Disney and ESPN Films’ Queen of Katwe comes with that old “true story” sports label before the credits even begin, and that should make the clichés easy enough to anticipate. And yet those merely serve as facets of a more thoughtful endgame.
Yes, Queen of Katwe is a film about an unsung real-life hero, but one with an involved and uncommon arc dealing with pride and doubt. Sure, Katwe has an energetic coach at the helm, but one that prizes foresight and patience over speechifying. And there may just be that big, final match, but it’s less an act of cinematic rapture than a moment of growth and learning. Queen of Katwe shows that a film doesn’t have to give up on the tenets of genre, but has the potential to win big if it can enliven them in new ways.
How does a film maintain momentum around chess, a sport that doesn’t rely on kinetics, physical impact, or leaving a 64-square board? Through its culture and its characters. Queen of Katwe tells the dramatic story of the chess champion Phiona Mutesi (Madina Nalwanga in a sensitive debut), from Katwe, Kampala in Central Uganda. The film picks up with Phiona as a teenager, scraping by in the late 2000s. Phiona sells corn. She says very little. She isn’t in school. Other children mock her. Her support system is her immediate family, but they live in poverty alongside her. Her mother Nakku (Academy Award winner Lupita Nyong’o) is alone, left to care for Phiona and her siblings with her tenacity and pride. Phiona’s life is lost, adrift in the socioeconomics of her country. But she strives, step by step, adjusting to each moment.
Not only was this filmed in the real Phiona’s home in Uganda, but it embraces the sights and sounds of her experience. Director Mira Nair has always foregrounded native immersion as the style and substance of her work. Salaam Bombay!, Monsoon Wedding, The Namesake; all of these speak to characters defined by their culture. Her style of storytelling, her quality of filmmaking, and her unique interests upstage any predictability.
DP Sean Bobbitt captures Uganda’s bronzed turmoil, as well as its vibrant mélange of local aesthetics. And to that point, Mobolaji Dawodu’s costume design adorns the characters with traditional clothing full of bright styles and patterns, to striking ends. It’s a sports film with vibrant color and life everywhere around the black and white game pieces. And the pacing is never a problem in Katwe, with Afro-beat music keeping the film’s storytelling brisk. Ugandan artists like Afrigo Band, Eddy Kenzo, and Bobbi Wine provide ample rhythm and momentum, the beats dramatizing Phiona’s story. All of this adds to the film’s cultural, experiential pleasures, but this minutiae always serves the characters, and the story – this is the emboldening of Phiona, the girl no one saw coming, and that lends the film its power.
Phiona wanders into a small shelter populated by other children of Katwe. She sees sustenance being offered by Robert Katende (David Oyelowo), a fledgling civil engineer. But there’s more to him. He’s a former athlete and scholar doing outreach with children in Uganda by teaching chess. At first Phiona seems like a slow learner, but over time she reveals the makings of another Bobby Fischer. Robert nurtures Phiona, like the other children. But he sees how far her unrealized gifts could take her, and what chess could provide her.
Chess, as explored in Katwe, is a game that champions intellectual values and accomplishments beyond winning trophies, which is perhaps why Katwe is so noteworthy within its subgenre. Phiona’s drama is about transcending daily struggle, about being strategic, but never forgetting where she’s from and what she has learned. Scoreboards and fist pumps can be found elsewhere; this is about the rewards of play, and the film’s positively entertaining joie-de-vivre.
Phiona competes in national championships with people from around the world. She doesn’t always win, but she matures. She dabbles in doubt, and cockiness, but she’s always figuring out the game, in every sense. Evaluating how best to make a pawn defend your board is ostensibly the same as figuring out how to avoid losing your rent with good math, or rationing food to make it last. Phiona has to make the right moves to see the world beyond her home, to support her siblings, or to just win the next match against some wiseacre prep school kid.
But after all the lessons, and all the matches, Queen of Katwe’s swiftest strategy is to not labor over the process of chess, but instead to sympathize with the people who play it, who they are, where they come from, and what chess means to them. Here, chess is about the young kings and queens laid dormant in the impoverished corners of Uganda, waiting for the chance to reveal themselves on the board.