The inspirational sports drama is a tried-and-true Hollywood formula that has taken numerous forms over the decades without ever really changing the basic template. But there’s a reason that we love these movies: they make us feel great, and Disney’s Queen of Katwe cleverly uses this time-honored blueprint to relate the true story of a poor girl from the Ugandan slums who becomes a chess prodigy.
Phiona Mutesi (newcomer Madina Nalwanga) lives a simple life in a poverty-stricken shanty town in Katwe, leaving her family’s tiny hut every morning to sell maize and hoping to scrape together enough money for a meal. On most days, she’s lucky enough to get rid of her supply before the sun goes down, but her brother Brian (Martin Kabanza) always seems to be finished by mid-day. Curious to discover his technique – and to find out where he spends his afternoons – Phiona surreptitiously trails Brian to a local ministry where former football star Robert Katende (David Oyelowo) is teaching the children to play chess.
At first, Phiona struggles with the complicated mechanics and strategies of the game, but patience and practice begin to pay off in a big way as her skills quickly outpace those of her fellow students. Robert sees greatness in Phiona’s growing mastery of the board, and wants her and the others to test their mettle in a local tournament, but there are two major obstacles standing in the way: the first is money, as none of the children can afford the entry fees; the second is Phiona’s mother Harriet (Lupita Nyong’o), a formidable woman who recognizes the joy that chess has brought to her children’s lives, but fears the emotional toll of an inevitable disappointment.
In her first professional acting role, Madina Nalwanga gives a dynamite performance as the strong-willed young woman who refuses to stand down in the face of diversity. Whether it’s being ridiculed by other students for her poor upbringing or gaped at incredulously by privileged male opponents who can’t believe they’ve been bested by a female, Nalwanga’s portrayal is full of spirit and fierce determination. No matter how many setbacks litter the road to success, Phiona returns each time even more defiant than the last, and it’s impossible not to be inspired by her story.
Queen of Katwe may ultimately be Phiona’s story, but it’s anchored by equally strong work from Oyelowo as the kindly chess coach who loves each of the students as if they were his own children, and Nyong’o as the proud, passionate mother who endures a seemingly endless string of hardships in hopes that Phiona and her siblings can have a better life than she did. Much like her character in 12 Years a Slave, she steadfastly refuses to surrender her dignity, and it’s easy to see the elements that shaped her daughter’s fortitude.
Shooting in many of the real-life locations where Phiona’s story took place – including the ramshackle church where Katende coached his players – director Mira Nair paints a stunningly vivid portrait of African life that is rarely displayed with such vibrance and energy by a Hollywood production. It’s a fresh and interesting backdrop for this type of story, and even though the paint-by-numbers formula presented by Queen of Katwe may not offer much in the way of surprises, the stirring, emotional performances and Nair’s confident execution are more than enough to make it special.