Directed by Mira Nair | Written by William Wheeler from an ESPN magazine article and book by Tim Crothers | 124 min
Phiona Mutesi (Madina Nalwanga) is a teenage girl from Katwe, an impoverished neighbourhood of Kampala, Uganda’s capital city. We meet her in 2011, when she’s competing in a national chess tournament. Flashback four years, and she’s selling maize in the streets with her younger brother, while her mother (Lupita Nyong’o) struggles to keep a roof over her family’s head. Phiona meets a strident missionary and teacher, Robert (David Oyelowo), who instructs local kids how to play chess. Turns out Phiona is a natural.
The cliches run thick in Queen of Katwe. With Disney cornering the market on the based-on-true-stories of underprivileged brown and black people inspired by good white folks to sports greatness—call it The Blind Side formula, evident in The Million Dollar Arm and McFarland, USA—you’d be forgiven to think they’re doing it here again. But this is an all African and African/British cast, and shooting in Katwe, Kampala, and other African cities gives it an authenticity that’s to its credit. It’s the kind of film where you recognize its plainspoken, predictable intent while allowing the performers and sentiment win over.
That’s not to say it isn’t consistently Disney-fied—it never gets too gritty, even in its depiction of the struggle to survive in extreme poverty—but there’s also a real sense of culture, of language, athletics, music and dance, and a humanity that shines through some obvious plotting and dialogue. The adults—Oyelowo and especially Nyong’o—are solid, but Nalwanga in the lead is a real find. Phiona is graceful and emotive, while still being a believable teenager. And Nair keeps it all together, even when a trip to a chess tournament in Russia beggars belief with painfully fake snow and CGI.
The finest moment: late in the running the actual people who lived this story stand beside their silver screen representatives. This is the advantage of doing a biopic while all the key personnel are still alive.