There are so many reasons Queen of Katwe shouldn’t even exist, and just thinking about them all makes me even more vexed at Hollywood for its desperate obsession with exhausted franchise fare when there are winning and wonderful stories like this to be told.
It may be that more people saw the cartoony African tribesmen of the dark, dismal Independence Day: Resurgence this summer than will see the impoverished but colorful world of Katwe, the largest slum in the Ugandan capital of Kampala, in Mira Nair’s fact-based film about real-life chess prodigy Phiona Mutesi, starring David Oyelowo (Selma) and Lupita Nyong’o (12 Years a Slave).
Those who do see Queen of Katwe, though, will experience something moving and enriching in a way that has become rare in Hollywood studio fare. Few people really liked Independence Day: Resurgence, but they watched it anyway. I have to think Queen of Katwe will delight practically everyone who sees it.
Actually, the reasons the film shouldn’t exist start with the improbability of an illiterate girl from the Katwe slum being exposed to chess in the first place, let alone beginning to find her way to prestigious tournaments and winning games against privileged students from elite schools.
Phiona’s story certainly deserves to be told, but it’s not necessarily the sort of story you expect from Disney, for at least three reasons.
First, chess doesn’t lend itself to popular moviemaking. Second, it’s set in Africa, and there are no white characters (and also, Nair has quipped, no animals). Third, Christian faith is a notable part of Phiona’s story, which first circulated in a church magazine and went on to appear in ESPN magazine before becoming an acclaimed book. (The book, by Tim Crothers, is also called The Queen of Katwe, but according to Nair the movie isn’t adapted from the book.)
It’s improbable enough that the headline for a story about the film at ChristianityToday.com, filed from the Toronto International Film Festival by Kenneth R. Morefield, reads simply, “Disney Made a Film About a Ugandan Christian Female Chess Champion.”
The result is a film that sticks closely enough to inspirational underdog sports-movie formula (prescinding from whether chess is a sport) to fit comfortably, and predictably, alongside the likes of The Rookie and Miracle, while depicting a world seldom, if ever, seen on multiplex screens. It’s a Hollywood film with an all-black cast that is not about racism or slavery; a film set in Africa that is not about war or famine.
Perhaps the closest point of comparison is Akeelah and the Bee, another film with a (mostly) black cast about a young girl with a hardworking, widowed mother (and a wayward older sibling) living in an impoverished community.
In both films an educated man comes into the girl’s life and introduces her to a world of intellectual competition that takes her increasingly out of her comfort zone, pitting her against privileged students from wealthy communities. The mother resists her daughter’s involvement in an activity she sees as some kind of threat, but is eventually won over by the girl’s coach and/or her daughter.
Nothing in Akeelah’s South Central L.A. compares, though, with the poverty and desperation of Phiona’s Katwe, where her mother Harriet Nakku (played with astonishing ferocity by Lupita Nyong’o) and her children sell maize to keep a roof over their heads — or, more precisely, to keep a landlord’s padlock off the door of their shack, which is what happens in Katwe if you miss the rent.
Phiona is played by 16-year-old newcomer Madina Nalwanga, who grew up in poverty not far from Katwe and joined a dance company to subsidize her education. Nalwanga inhabits Phiona’s world with un-selfconscious poise, projecting intelligence in a character of limited horizons. Katwe is full of children like Phiona who might have the potential to become so many things — writers, pilots, athletes, nurses, engineers — but will never have the chance to find out.
Occasionally that chance does come to a child of Kampala’s slums, like Robert Katende (David Oyelowo), who got a soccer scholarship at a private school and became an engineer. While looking for an engineering job to support his wife, Sara (Esther Tebandeke), and their new baby girl, he tries to give back to children as needy as he once was by working at a Christian missionary organization called Sports Outreach Institute.
Some boys at Sports Outreach don’t want to play soccer, so Katende slyly entices them to take a shot at chess, a game they have never heard of but which he tells them would give them a chance to “beat city boys.” Say no more.
When Phiona happens upon the fledgling chess club at Agape Church — “Pioneers,” Robert calls them — she gets her first lesson from another girl. Holding up a pawn and a queen, the girl explains, “In chess, the small one can become the big one.” It’s the first of several chess metaphors, mostly from Robert.
Then the girl tells Phiona to go away — because she smells. This isn’t gratuitous rudeness: Katwe reeks of garbage and sewage. Nair, who has a house in Uganda and founded a film training initiative there, doesn’t shy from the harsh realities of life in Katwe (where the slum sequences were really shot), at least to the extent possible in a PG family film.
On the other hand, Nair also revels in the colors and textures of this world: clay-orange earth, bright fabrics, weatherbeaten bricks and wood. When Phiona ventures for the first time out of Kampala, the contrasting images — the intimidating manicured lawns and pristine buildings at the International Children’s Chess Tournament in South Sudan; swirling snowflakes in Russia — hit us with the freshness they have to Phiona’s eyes.
And when Phiona returns to Katwe, we experience anew the deprivation that she now sees through eyes that have been opened. Queen of Katwe confronts the uncomfortable possibility, feared by Phiona’s mother Harriet, that, by broadening her horizons and showing her a larger world she may not be able to become a part of, Robert may have done Phiona no favors.
Looking down with astonishment at a blanket of clouds on her first plane trip, she asks whether they are in heaven — and she means it, literally. “No,” Robert laughs. “Heaven is a bit higher.”
The story’s Christian elements are another thing Nair doesn’t shy away from. Sports Outreach is plainly a religious organization, and Robert’s faith is part of his reason for working there, and he shares it with his Pioneers; for example, praying with them before a match.
Grace before meals and the Our Father are part of this world — as are doubt and disappointment with God. Early on, Phiona asks her older sister Night whether she thinks God has forgotten them. Night’s reply: “I don’t think he cares one way or the other about us.” Harriet believes otherwise, though: “I can look away,” she says regarding Night’s waywardness, “but God still sees.”
Investing her character with depth and conviction far beyond the part as written, Nyong’o is heartbreaking as a strong woman in overwhelming circumstances trying to protect and care for her family with virtually no resources. Nyong’o is only 33, but her character is a mother in a world of children raised by children.
Although Oyelowo’s character embodies many traits that converge with his masterful portrayal of Martin Luther King Jr. in Selma — shrewd intelligence, charisma, eloquence, acute moral concern for the disadvantaged — the two performances couldn’t be more different.
Where Oyelowo’s King was imposing and authoritative, Robert is modest, cheerful and self-effacing. All the same, he wants fighters for players — and he fights fiercely for them, taking economic and even physical risks for them. When an official expresses consternation at the unthinkable idea of slum children competing in that first tournament, Robert finds new ways not to take No for an answer.
One of the things I like about Queen of Katwe is that Robert has a life outside of Sports Outreach and coaching chess. The film never forgets that Robert’s actions affect his family as well as himself. At one point he tries to apologize to Sara about a decision he made. Her reply brought tears to my eyes — not for the first time during the film, or the last.
Caveat Spectator: Frank depiction of grinding poverty and desperation; some suggestive references regarding exploitation of women; a fleeting but traumatic accident. Still probably fine for older kids.