As a child, I completed an about-face whenever I saw two people playing chess. I thought, “What a boring game!” Yet there I was, in a seat for a screening of Queen of Katwe, a film depicting the journey of a young Ugandan woman’s rise to fame as a chess champion.
Director Mira Nair has experience in crafting stories based on true events (Amelia) and took on the task of putting Phiona Mutesi (Madina Nalwanga) and the Pioneers’ story onto the Silver Screen. There are heartfelt moments riddled throughout the film that are shot at wonderful angles and include all of the natural, vibrant colors of each setting. Nair not only impressed aesthetically, but surprised by not focusing the story solely chess — that wasn’t the point of Queen of Katwe. She focused on character development and everything surrounding the board game, often times drawing the comparisons between starting off as a pawn and becoming a queen.
Take the scene where Phiona and her brother, Brian (Martin Kabanza), are sitting together in a hospital. Even though Brian cannot play due to being hospitalized, they use a checkered blanket and bottle caps bent to represent chess pieces. They played and played, but my mind didn’t focus on the game — it focused on how pure the interaction was between the two actors. While their mother stresses, whether it be in that moment or another, the kids sharply contrast her tone with their innocence and smiling faces.
Nair opens the film with a backwards-forwards approach. Mutesi is seen fixated on a chess board shared by another player in what seems to be the final round of a tournament. The clock is tapped by her opponent and Phiona is seen stressing with her head and shoulders slouched. She contemplates her next move. It seems she’s ready to give up and then —
We’re quickly brought away from that moment to the beginning of the journey. We see young Phiona and her brother, Brian (Martin Kabanza), selling maize along streets and between busy intersections. Nair beautifully shoots a montage introducing us to Kampala, the capital of Uganda, where Nakku Harriet (Lupita Nyong’o) struggles to make money and bring food and shelter to her three children. Her oldest daughter, Night (Taryn Kyaze), quickly lashes out at the lifestyle her and her family lives. She runs off with her then-boyfriend, Theo (Maurice Kirya). Theo’s a bad dude and one you don’t bring home to mama, and mama displays her disgust.
Nyong’o succeeds in portraying a mother who carries a hardened shell on the outside, but is capable of love and emotion. From the moment she smacked Theo’s bike and sent him away (motherly instincts and all), there was a sense she would serve as the grounded mother willing to give it all for her children. Nyong’o is nothing short of exceptional in this one.
There’s an interesting trend in Hollywood with children actors as of late: They’ve been fantastic. In Queen of Katwe, that trend continues. Ethan Nazario Lubega (“Benjamin”). Nalwanga and Kabanza are just some of the notable child actors that made this film charming and equal parts innocent. There’s a moment when Phiona beats one of the boys in chess at the ministry. The boy cries, “I’m not champion anymore!” As the audience during the screening laughed, I smirked and remembered the childish tendency to throw a fit whenever not getting what I wanted.
The coach responsible for putting Katwe on the map for chess, Robert Katende (David Oyelowo), absolutely stole the show. His charisma, charm and comedic timing was a thing of beauty. After starring in Selma as MLK Jr., he proved he could carry a film for the most part. And that he did in Queen of Katwe. The Pioneers, the chess group Phiona and her brother join, is coached by Katende, a husband, teacher of chess and a football (soccer, people!) player. Throughout the film, him and his wife, Sara, who teaches at the local private school, are hard-working parents.
There are plenty of touching moments that Robert and Phiona share through the years, whether during chess or everything surrounding the game. A wonderful moment took place on an airplace where some of the Pioneers and Katende made their way to a chess tournament. Phiona turns to her coach and asks, as she peers outside her window and sees the fluffiest of clouds, “Are we in heaven?” With a genuine smile, Robert responds, “No, Phiona. I think heaven is a little higher up.” Such a simple, yet charming, moment.
Although, the film wasn’t without any flaws. There was predictability around every corner, but it’s to be expected from a PG-rated Disney film. I didn’t expect any dark tones to surface, either, but there were conflicts with Phiona and her mother, along with Robert and his wife. That’s a positive, yes, but it slowly became too jam-packed with cliche moments. This despair was stuffed into a 20 minute sequence during the beginning of the third act. It was the only time where I began to think about whether the runtime was justified. Not enough to make you raise your arms in disgust, but it wasn’t what made the film special.
Queen of Katwe brought along feel-good emotion, a humble outlook on life and what Disney always does, which are moments, albeit predictable, that tug on your heartstrings.
I viewed “Queen of Katwe” in 2D, thanks to Sly Fox. The movie’s runtime clocked in at two hours and four minutes.