It’s a rare day indeed when my diametrical opposition to treacly, feel-good family dramas can be overcome, and a still rarer day when I will begrudgingly accept such a film that’s been produced by Disney Corp. So you can imagine my surprise on finding that Mira Nair’s Queen of Katwe put something of a dent in my generalized cynicism. That cynicism is still intact, but I would be remiss as a reviewer if I did not give this film a strong recommendation despite my initial reservations.
The film is a dramatization of the life of Ugandan chess prodigy Phiona Mutesi, as adapted from the book by ESPN writer Tim Crothers. I’ve seen this film referred to as a “sports story,” and while I would hesitate to call chess athletic, it is certainly competitive enough to warrant pretty direct comparisons. Chess is a notoriously difficult game to shoot, but Nair and cinematographer Sean Bobbitt manage to make the tournament and training sequences compelling without dwelling too long on the details. And though the story of the plucky underdog overcoming challenging circumstances has been rehashed ad nauseam in the context of sports movies, the nature and handling of this story distinguish it from other films of its ilk.
There’s no question that Queen of Katwe hits all the requisite beats of its uplifting subgenre, but the interesting thing about this film is that it never comes across as saccharine pandering. Sure, it glosses over some of the gorier details of its ghetto setting, but Nair finds a way to tell the story on a human scale that affects a true sense of relatability. It would be difficult for me to have less in common with this film’s protagonist, but her emotional breakdown after blowing a game at the Chess Olympiad in Moscow took me right back to my inglorious days as a college wrestler.
The film works where it could’ve fallen apart, and the lion’s share of that credit must go to Nair. The director made a number of extremely smart decisions with this production, choosing to shoot predominantly on location in the Ugandan slums and casting local actors as both extras and principals. The immediacy of Nair’s camera work captures the feel of the setting even when things look a little too clean and polished, and her eye has a gratifying habit of catching details that effectively build her narrative world. From the garishly decorated motorcycle taxis (known as boda-bodas) to the plastic bags filled with lamp oil available in the crowded market, the attention to accuracy likely stems from Nair’s time in Uganda and her extensive research for Mississippi Masala, expanding the filmmaker’s reputation for building worlds that feel believable and lived-in even if they’re largely alien to the intended audience.
The cast Nair has put together functions perfectly under the auspices of her narrative, with Lupita Nyong’o and David Oyelowo both delivering standout performances as the protagonist’s mother and chess coach, respectively. Nyong’o, in particular, is a force to be reckoned with as Mutesi’s tough-as-nails widowed mom, balancing her character’s struggle to attend to the daily needs of her children with her bafflement at her daughter’s newfound calling. 15-year-old Ugandan Madina Nalwanga acquits herself admirably even amongst such august acting talents as Nyong’o and Oyelowo, and by the time the actors are presented alongside their real-world counterparts under the end credits, it’s difficult to imagine anyone else playing the role.
Queen of Katwe is by no means a perfect film, but most of my quibbling gripes can be attributed directly to the film’s Disney pedigree and adherence to that studio’s stylistic and textual constraints. The obvious issues of problematic colonial influence that led to chess being remotely on anyone’s radar in war-torn Africa are completely disregarded, and the class distinctions that are brought up by the script are similarly brushed aside. But this is a film with two strong female leads, beautifully realized location filming and an exemplary ensemble that features unheralded local talent rather than casting known names to cater to the American market. Much like its protagonist, Queen of Katwe never quite attains the rank of Grand Master, but its capacity to think several moves ahead of its competition bodes well for its prospects come awards season. Rated PG for thematic elements, an accident scene and some suggestive material.
Now playing at Carolina Cinemark and Regal Biltmore Grand.