There are a variety of reasons to praise the latest Disney sports flick, Queen of Katwe. Moving away from more traditional sports stories involving Football or Baseball, Disney opted to support Indian American director Mira Nair in making a film based on the true story of Ugandan chess prodigy Phiona Mutesi. The film is set in Africa, features a non-Caucasian cast and does not shy away from the troubles surrounding its setting. In an age where many PG-rated biopics do shy away from the rougher elements, Queen of Katwe does a good job of embracing them, as well as serving as a heart-warming story of triumph.
The film gets off to a great start just in the way it sets up its drama. Flash-forwarding a bit, we see Phiona (Madina Nalwanga) entering a chess tournament and observing her opponent and surroundings. Right away it is established that Phiona’s struggles are not based on her race or that she is female. She is an African chess player, much like many of her competitors and while there are many other struggles she and her family must deal with over the course of this film, drama does not stem from discrimination or bigotry as seen in plenty of other sports dramas.
As established, Phiona has a natural talent for chess. She discovers this after wandering into a class being taught by the incredibly humble Robert Katende (David Oyelowo). Despite being an educated man and having his own family, Robert goes to the poor area of Katwe (located within Kampala, the capital of Uganda) to teach underprivileged kids how to play chess. The various kids are eventually more welcoming of Phiona’s presence, especially after she shows how clever she is at thinking ahead in these matches.
Lupita Nyong’o also stars as Nakku Harriet, Phiona’s mother, who worries for her child (1 of 4), as she struggles to maintain a household. Given an acceptance of her station in life, it is not that she wants to hold her daughter back, but it becomes a challenge for her to see her daughter excel and travel with other groups to play chess in foreign areas. Nyong’o is quite terrific in her part. She becomes a much larger presence in the second half of the film, as the narrative cleverly switches over to how Phiona’s success affects her life living in Katwe with her family.
Going into this film and knowing Nair was directing, it was of no surprise that Queen of Katwe would have a wonderful cinematic look. Filming mostly in Uganda and South Africa, there is a wonderful richness to all that we see, regardless of the societal classes we are following. Regardless of whatever drama unfolds, the use of color and a fairly warm tone to it all allows the film to have a stronger filmmaker’s dynamic than many of the fairly rudderless Disney sports film of recent years. This also harkens to another one of the film’s best qualities – perspective.
While this biopic is a dramatization of events (it is a movie, after all), Queen of Katwe does not shift away from Phiona and the people directly involved in her life. As opposed to following the personal struggles of Jon Hamm in Million Dollar Arm, the story of how Indian cricket players were brought to America to play baseball, Queen of Katwe doesn’t switch focus to any sort of Caucasian outsider who whisks Phiona away from her troubles. The film may play down some of the harsher realties, such as Phiona’s older sister’s multiple pregnancies that came as a result of prostitution, but adults can certainly glean a lot of that information, while a younger audience can enjoy what is being presented.
This also stands to reason with other thematic material. As previously stated, Phiona is not presented with challenge because she is black. If anything, hubris becomes her greatest enemy, followed by a basic understanding that it is tough to live a poor life in Africa. Despite the things holding her back, Nalwanga gives a fine performance as a newcomer actress. She plays well against Nyong’o and Oyelowo, along with the other young actors (many made up of non-professionals). Oyelowo is strong as well, selling the attitude of a selfless individual who does what he can for those who could benefit.
If there is any flaw, it’s how the film does follow the standard formula of a sports drama. There are ups and downs and the film does little to move off a well-explored path. However, whether or not praise for Queen of Katwe is a little generous for this reason, there is a lot to enjoy about a film of this nature getting made by a major studio. Besides, being generous and having a good attitude towards a slightly familiar film does not take away from the fact that Queen of Katwe is well-acted, looks great and has the attitude of a winner. Much like Phiona, this film is indeed a winner.