“Sometimes the place you are used to is not the place you belong,” the master tells the student, perfectly encapsulating the hero’s journey in one sentence. Sure it’s on the nose, but so are many lines from Queen of Katwe including this gem: “In chess, the small one can become the big one.”
Queen of Katwe, the latest live-action movie from Walt Disney Pictures, is an unabashed, unashamed, inspirational underdog story about Phiona Mutesi (Madina Nalwanga), a poor teenager from Katwe — a slum outside of Uganda’s capital, Kampala — who’s life does not extend beyond her daily job of selling corn and salt in the open-air market. Phiona and her brother, Brian (Martin Kabanza), make the best of their situation by singing and dancing, but their mother, Nakku (Lupita Nyong’o) is constantly worried about making the monthly rent and putting food in their bellies. Phiona’s father died when she was young and her older sister, Night (Taryn Kyaze), has left Katwe for the big cities and the big boys.
Life in Katwe is tough. The landlords are strict, the money is scarce and the rains will come and wash away anything not nailed down, but Phiona and Brian do their best to keep their spirits up. True salvation comes when Phiona happens to cross paths with a square board of 64 squares and 32 pieces. A soccer coach and teacher from the local ministry, Robert Katende (David Oyelowo), teaches the children of Katwe to play chess hoping that it will simultaneously prepare them for life. Chess teaches you to plan and find safe squares, he tells the children. When he sees Phiona and Brian watching from outside, he invites them into his safe square.
To say that Phiona has a knack for the game is an understatement. She can see up to eight moves ahead — that’s grand master lever thinking — and with a little encouragement and practice, Phiona could be the best in the world. It is no surprise when she does, nor is the requisite midpoint setback, but the gut-punch comes when Phiona returns home after her first major loss and the slums of Katwe seem even harsher. How many setbacks does this underdog story actually need?
Directed by Mira Nair and written by William Wheeler — based on the ESPN Magazine article and book by Tim Crothers — Queen of Katwe is a crowd-pleasing tear-jerker of the highest accord. The dialog is certainly on the nose, the highs and lows and manipulative and a couple of speeches from secondary characters drive those scenes to a halt, but none of those setbacks brings Queen to her knees. Nyongo’s and Oyelowo are delightful in their roles and bring a steady hand to this production. Combined with eye-popping color in every scene and streets teeming with life, Nair and cinematographer Sean Bobbitt, capture the texture and energy of these people and the city they inhabit. Yes, it is a sad and difficult life, but that doesn’t mean we can’t have a little fun along the way.
That fun is what drives Phiona and Nalwanga’s performance. Nair was right to cast a newcomer; a professional would have chewed the hell out of Phiona’s scenes. Instead, Nalwanga gives an understated and sometimes halting performance, just the sort of behavior of a shy teenage girl. When Phiona plays chess, she is the best around and she knows it. Away from the board, the world is far too big to wrap her head around, and she knows that too. But she also knows that in chess a pawn can become a queen. When that moment comes, it’s hard not to cheer.