Mark Reviews Movies

Queen of Katwe


3 Stars (out of 4)

Director: Mira Nair

Cast: Madina Nalwanga, David Oyelowo, Lupita Nyong'o, Martin Kabanza, Taryn "Kay" Kyaze, Ronald Ssemaganda, Ethan Nazario Lubega, Nikita Waligwa, Edgar Kanyike, Sara Katende

MPAA Rating: PG (for thematic elements, an accident scene and some suggestive material)

Running Time: 2:04

Release Date: 9/23/16 (limited); 9/30/16 (wide)

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Review by Mark Dujsik | September 22, 2016

Director Mira Nair wisely makes chess of ancillary interest in Queen of Katwe. The game is depicted in only its most rudimentary form: The basics of the rules are briefly established, and matches play out beneath the faces of the participants, with a few shots here and there to establish the impending conclusion of a game. Chess is essentially a MacGuffin for the story. It's important, to be sure, because being good at the game is perhaps the only way for some of these characters to escape the vicious cycle of poverty in which they are trapped.

This also means that the screenplay by William Wheeler (based on a magazine article and, later, a book by Tim Crothers) doesn't turn the game into an overarching metaphor for the lives, perils, and potential victories of these characters. That would be reductionist. That would be to undermine the real dilemmas that these people face. That would be to turn the inspirational success of its central character into a game.

The film is, first and foremost, about the reality of living in Katwe, an economically destitute area in Kampala, the capital city of Uganda (or at least as real as a film aimed at families will allow). Nair and her crew shot the film on location, which means there is no evading the reality—the cramped rows of hovels along the street, the market where locals barter for the best food they can buy (which, for the family at the center of the story, is usually the near-rotten leftovers at the end of the day), the bustle of a jammed highway where merchants dash from car to car to sell their wares. If there's a tendency to romanticize poverty in order to make an ascent from it seem possible, Nair deftly avoids that inclination here, simply by showing us the way things are.

The story follows Phiona Mutesi (Madina Nalwanga, making a strong impression in her first film), who has lived her entire life in Katwe. The path of her life is set before her—unavoidable. Like her widowed mother Nakku (Lupita Nyong'o), Phiona will sell maize and other foodstuffs, prepared by the hands of her family members, at the local market.

There will be no schooling, because it costs too much money and takes too much time away from the only means of making money to survive. There will be no other work to be had, except the nightly street work that her older sister (Taryn "Kay" Kyaze) begins, just to find some other way of living. Phiona will live like this for the rest of her life, and her children will follow the same path.

Enter Robert Katende (David Oyelowo), who takes a job at a local Christian ministry teaching local children sports. He begins a chess club because some of the kids' parents worry about injuries from playing soccer (Hospitals are out of the way and cost-prohibitive—a fact that becomes clear after one of Phiona's siblings is involved in a hit-and-run).

Phiona joins the team, learns the rules, and displays an inherent talent for reasoning out strategies that most players learn from books written by the masters. Phiona cannot read, but Robert's wife (Esther Tebandeke) begins to teach her to read in private lessons.

The film is based on Mutesi's life story, but Wheeler's screenplay avoids the trappings of biography to tell a bigger story. It's not just about Phiona's steady, unexpected rise in the chess world—from her humble beginnings in Katwe to her success in tournaments in Africa to her struggles to compete on an international stage. It's also about Nakku's misgivings about gambling on the futures of all of her children on the chance that her daughter might be able to achieve a better life. It's about Robert's goodness and his lessons to Phiona, which revolve around chess but speak to the benefits of education and the need to keep one's ego in check—especially when Phiona starts to believe that she is ready to become a Grandmaster before she actually is prepared.

It's also, though, about the place and its people. They're represented by the on-location scenes and, also, by the rest of Robert's club, which includes Phiona's young brother Benjamin (Ethan Nazario Lubega). They're overlooked and mocked by tournament officials, who state that the educated competitors could teach the poor kids some manners, and the "city kids," who receive fine educations at gated schools (Discovering that they could have the opportunity to defeat these kids is enough motivation for some of the Katwe kids to learn chess).

At their first tournament, the team is given a dorm room filled with enough cots for each of them, but Robert finds his team members huddled together, wrapped in blankets, on the floor. The character's one, rallying speech is not—as we've become accustomed to in sports movies—an attempt to inspire competitiveness but to counter the team's collective feelings of personal inadequacy. The matches here, again, focus on the faces of these kids, who find themselves set against competitors who wear their class and their feelings of superiority on their own faces.

Nair and Wheeler never lose sight of what's at stake here. The end of every match and every tournament brings Phiona and her teammates back to Katwe, where the day-to-day routine of poverty continues in spite of the chess players' temporary absence. Nair's decision to treat this condition as authentically as possible means that we're fully aware that the inspiring story at the heart of Queen of Katwe is an exception.

Copyright © 2016 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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