Disney Pictures and ESPN Films teamed up for Queen of Katwe, a story about a young girl’s dream to become a chess grandmaster.
Based on Tim Crothers’ book The Queen of Katwe: A Story of Life, Chess, and One Extraordinary Girl’s Dream of Becoming a Grandmaster, Queen of Katwe follows a young Ugandan girl named Phiona (Madina Nalwanga). As a young girl, Phiona sold good for her mother every day. One day, while following her brother, she wanders into the world of chess. Robert (David Oyelowo) teaches kids from the slums of Katwe to play chess. It’s not long before Phinoa becomes a skilled chess player and starts to test her abilities outside of the kids in her group. As Phiona’s skills advance, chess is no longer seen as a hobby, but an opportunity to change her life.
The heart of the film, like most sports stories, is Phiona’s internal and external challenges. Internally – she struggles with realizing she’s great at chess. Like Morpheus told Neo, “There’s a difference between knowing the path, and walking the path.” Phiona constantly doubts her abilities and if she belongs with other kids who aren’t from the slums. Externally – she’s dealing with her family struggles, her mom’s (played by Lupita Nyong’o) inability to see chess as a way out, and the reality of what her future in Katwe will be without chess. Phiona also deals with the struggles of traveling to chess competitions that have beds and food and other amenities, only to return to the slums once the competition is over.
One of the best scenes involves a conversation Phiona has with Robert about getting older. She talks about getting older in Katwe and what’s going to happen when the men come for her? Where is her “safe space” like the ones on the chessboard? As heartbreaking as the scene is, it’s a reminder of how aware Phiona is of her potential future. So much so, it almost blinds her from seeing a different path for her life.
Madina Nalwanga is the standout performer in a group of talented young actors. In her debut film, Madina shines as a tough, hesitant, loving young girl who wants to change her situation but isn’t sure she if she can do it. Her teenage co-stars are fantastic and deliver some of the film’s best laugh out loud moments.
David Oyelowo continues to give strong performances in every film he’s in. Robert is part coach/father figure/Moses who speaks about chess as a road from the slums to the promise land. Even if for a few hours, chess is a way for the students to escape a world that’s collapsing around them. Oyelowo is such a consistent actor, people may start to take his performances for granted.
Director Mira Nair (The Reluctant Fundamentalist, Amelia, Mississippi Masala) captures the love and spirit of the people in Uganda. With a run-time of 124 minutes, the third act drags on a little long. Over-dialogued scenes and unnecessary poverty (it feels like poverty porn) clog up an ending that should be full of heart and smiles.
Queen of Kate still manages to be a heartwarming story of triumph, faith, and purpose. Phiona’s story is so incredible; it’s a real life Disney story if there ever was one.