by Ken Bakely
Brimming with vitality, spirit, and optimism, Mira Nair’s Queen of Katwe follows the bullet points of a typical sports movie, but operates with such vibrancy and humanity that it overcomes its narrative normality and exercises diverse, hopeful strength. The sport is chess, the underdog is a teenage girl in Uganda, and yet the grasp of the story is universal. Its empowering positivity carries with it a strong cast and colorful cinematography. Here is a film that wants you to feel good. That’s all. And in the confines of that scope, it works, thanks to its fresh take on otherwise well-worn structures. You can hem and haw about its lack of innovation on the part of the script, and you would be right. But you’d also be ignoring the bigger picture.
Katwe, a slum on the outskirts of Kampala, is the hometown of Phiona Mutesi (Madina Nalwanga), a young girl who lives with her mother (Lupita Nyong’o) and siblings. Phiona seems to be destined to live the same, cyclical life that many of her peers are headed for, until a local educator named Robert (David Oyelowo) teaches her how to play chess. It’s a fateful choice. Phiona is good. She’s very good. Robert assembles her, along with a couple of other players from around the area, and they make a formidable team, soon running the gamut from local meets to internationally organized competitions. Rising far above anything she could have imagined just a few years earlier, Phiona’s worldview is dramatically expanded, but it also brings a more challenging perspective on the struggles that she and her family continue to face. The lessons of chess – precision, concentration, and perseverance – will manifest themselves in many ways.
Queen of Katwe’s most obvious achievement is bringing its setting to life. Cinematographer Sean Bobbitt brilliantly highlights the energy flowing through Katwe, choosing not to depict it as a depressed, deflated village, but a packed and electric community. Clothing – traditional garb and modern attire alike – is captured in gorgeous color, highlighting the many lives that are forged in parts of the world that we often forget. This approach is further indicative of Nair’s filming strategy as a whole – emphasizing personality and potential to maintain interest in the proceedings, instead of relying on cheap gambits, an overblown score, or plain pity. With a screenplay so formulaic, the challenge to stay above mediocrity could have been great, but the total creative dedication is clear.
At the core of this asset are the quality of the film’s performances. It’s a strong cast, headed up with solid work from newcomer Madina Nalwanga. Phiona is put through many emotional events through the 124 minute runtime, and Nalwanga is able to deliver a depthful performance, presenting both highs and lows with equal fervor and attentiveness. Her scenes with Nyong’o are wonderful, depicting a strong bond between parent and child tested by the drastic changes going on around them. Oyelowo also provides important supporting work as Robert, whose guiding personality is challenged and shaped with a series of difficult decisions and impassioned moments.
Taking us through a section of the world rarely depicted in cinema, Queen of Katwe serves both as a vehicle for its real-life basis and a guide on how to set a film in the third world. Despite the poverty and lack of opportunity that its citizens face, Katwe is never seen as hopeless or dreary. And such an established setting allows its plot to rise above the trappings of a standard mold and feel so uplifting and in touch with humanity. Nair and company give us a tonic against cynicism (which is rather desperately needed now). Not really original, not really innovative, but so captivated and devoted to presenting the most accessible message possible, it’s easy to feel the radiance it casts, and the strong vibes it sends.