The Queen of Katwe, a film by Mira Nair, is based on the true story of Phiona Mutesi, a Ugandan girl who, with very little formal education, became an international chess champion. The accomplished Indian director Nair, who loves to make movies about people and subjects largely ignored in mainstream film, presents us in this work with a very touching and inspiring story of great hardship, determination, and triumph.
As the film opens, Phiona, played by newcomer Madina Nalwanga, works day after day selling maize, along with her widowed mother, sister, and brother, in order to survive in Katwe, one of the poorest slums in Kampala, the Ugandan capital. The mother, Nakku Harriet, is played by Lupita Nyong’o, whom you may recall from 12 Years a Slave, for which she won a supporting Oscar. Nakku is strict with her children, and fiercely protective. When Phiona’s teenage older sister runs off with a disreputable man, the mother is grief stricken, and determined not to let her other daughter, Phiona, end up as a prostitute.
One day, Phiona sees her younger brother going to a building with some other boys. She peeks in and sees a bunch of kids playing chess. It’s an afterschool program sponsored by a Christian outreach mission and taught by Robert Katende, a gentle and kind hearted man played by David Oyelowo. She soon displays a natural aptitude for the game, which Katende takes pains to encourage. The story then follows Phiona’s gradual progress as a player and a person.
The picture was filmed in Uganda, and Nair manages to evoke the sumptuous beauty of the Ugandan land and people, even in the midst of grinding poverty. The family lives in a rented tin roof shack, always one accident or tragedy away from ruin. Indeed, one of the film’s strengths is how it refuses to sugarcoat the dire conditions under which the poor people of Katwe struggle to live.
On the other hand, the director has always had a tendency to underline the lessons and morals in her stories, which can weaken the effect, and here, particularly in some of the dialogue from William Wheeler’s screenplay, we occasionally sense that overreach. This is a Disney produced film, after all, so some sentiment and uplift, as we call it, are guaranteed. But The Queen of Katwe transcends any such weaknesses with the strength and honesty of the performances. Oyelowo, who played Martin Luther King in Selma recently, is utterly winning as Phiona’s chess mentor, bringing warmth and conviction to every line. Nyong’o conveys a steely resolve along with deep love as the mother. And Nalwanga is a revelation in the title role, supported by marvelous work from the other child actors. The Queen of Katwe is a film of joy and tears, and I think that’s just what we need right now.