Queen of Katwe, opening this weekend, tells the true-life story of Phiona Mutesi, a young girl living in poverty in Uganda who becomes an international chess champion. The film is lovingly directed by Mira Nair (Monsoon Wedding) and stars David Oyelowo (Selma, Jack Reacher), Lupita Nyong’o (12 Years a Slave, Star Wars: The Force Awakens), and newcomer Madina Nalwanga as Phiona. While the film does follow some of the formula of sports movies (it’s a coproduction between Disney and ESPN Films) at its heart, Queen of Katwe is a drama about the intersection of family, class, and community. Director Mira Nair has crafted a beautiful film that will both touch and challenge audiences.
The real heart of Queen of Katwe lies in the relationships between the three leads: David Oyelowo, Lupita Nyong’o, and Madina Nalwanga. Oyelowo plays Robert Katende (the real life Katende acted as chess consultant on the film), an aspiring engineer and former athlete who finds himself teaching sports to youth as a part of a ministry. When he discovers Phiona peeking into the building where he is running a chess group, he invites her in, offers her some porridge, and encourages another student to teach her about chess. Nyong’o plays Phiona’s mother, Nakku, a young widow raising three children, struggling to earn enough money to pay for their small living quarters in the slum of Katwe.
Robert quickly figures out that Phiona has a great capacity to excel at chess and he begins encouraging her to play more and more. At the same time he starts aggressively advocating her his group of children to compete in chess tournaments where they are not welcome because of their socioeconomic status. As the group becomes successful and begins to pursue new opportunities, friction develops between Robert and Nakku. In a less complex film, this friction would be portrayed either as the out of control ambition of a coach or as a defensive, reactionary position taken by a mother who feels challenged. That’s not what happens in this film. There’s a nuance at play both in how the film develops and navigates these relationships, but also in how it interweaves this conflict into the overall story of this chess group and the surrounding community.
While this is ultimately Phiona’s story and her journey, Mira Nair is able to also paint a loving portrait of this community and how it is effected by Phiona and the rest of the chess group. This interweaving of community, class, and character really comes to a head as Phiona has tasted some real success and been exposed to a different way of living. She finds herself returning to Katwe feeling lost, as if she is stuck in between the worlds of her chess success and her home in Katwe. This ends up affecting her chess performance and also her family life in ways that take the film in often unexpected and surprising directions.
None of this would work without the strong performances of Oyelowo, Nyong’o, and Nalwanga as well as the other supporting players. There was an opportunity for this film to go very broad in it’s characterizations, but with few exceptions Mira Nair and the performers resist this temptation. This is not Cool Runnings and I suspect having Ms. Nair as director played a large part in this. Nyong’o has probably the toughest part in the film as she has to navigate the challenge of portraying a young, strong mother who is supportive, but often acts in ways that are surprising and harsh. It’s a stunning performance. Oyelowo is also strong in this film as the coach. He brings a gravitas to the role that is accented by a kindness that is very affecting. Nalwanga also holds her own and I’m very curious to see what kinds of roles come her way next.
Queen of Katwe is perhaps a bit slower than other films of this ilk. It’s a subtler, more nuanced sports and family drama that will challenge audiences not only in its pacing, but in its depictions of life in poverty. It’s ultimately a very rewarding film that is both inspirational and incredibly emotional. The film opens today in theaters nationwide.