Queen of Katwe (2016)
dir. Mira Nair
written by: William Wheeler
starring: Madina Nalwanga, David Oyelowo, Lupita Nyong’o
3.25 out of 4 stars
The bulk of theatrical releases featuring inspirational true stories exist too long ago to claim relevance, particularly for a child. Disney’s new live-action feature Queen of Katwe grabs a story of a girl just graduated from high school to tell her rise out of poverty through her skills at chess. Perfect for the entire family, Queen is able to provide an inspirational, hopeful message in the face of adversity without becoming preaching or pitying to its subjects.
Based between 2007 and 2011, Queen of Katwe focuses on chess champion Phiona Mutesi’s (Madina Nalwanga) journey from the Katwe slums of Kampala, Uganda to international recognition as a prodigy in her sport. Her journey was not a solo rise though. Surrounded by her coach Robert Katende (David Oyelowo), teammates, and her proud but supportive mother Nakku Harriet (Lupita Nyong’o), Phiona is given the opportunity to grow beyond her street vendor beginnings proves that education and determination are the greatest assets in this world.
Celebrating the rich culture, director Mira Nair directs with a familiar comfortability with her subject. Having examined class in her native India for so long, Nair was able to grasp the beauty in an area that could appear destitute and ugly. Featuring magnificent shots of makeshift homes (a church of particular note) and littered landscapes or giant timber yards showcase the peculiar majesty in the poorest of places. The colorful costumes with impeccable patterns from costume designer Mobolaji Dawodu drape the actors in memorable, vibrant wears. Each portion of the production is finely crafted, adding to the tension behind such a quiet game.
Nair directs her young cast for a remarkable youth ensemble. From the adorable hiccups and surprisingly cute outbursts of a young female chess player Gloria (Nikita Waligwa) to the brash hilarity and confidence of Benjamin (Ethan Nazario Lubega), the youth cast is diverse and easily discerned between each other. Each actor is given a role that they could emulate from their real life counterpart. No actor is more challenged and strong than lead Madina Nalwanga. This new actress is permitted to grow with her character. Phiona is illiterate in her small slum at the beginning of the story, and Nalwanga is given little upon which to build. As her world expands, so does Nalwanga’s performance. She permits the joy she experiences in her family and the fear of failures she encounters in competition to play in a way that is inspiring when viewing her performance.
As for the adults, I was expecting to be blown away by Lupita Nyong’o as the long suffering, proud mother struggling to help her children survive. The performance is strong–Nyong’o musters quiet fury when protective and defensive might when her parenting is challenged–but David Oyelowo as the chess coach steals the adult spotlight. Playing Robert Katende, the chess coach for the children in real life and in the movie, his determination to provide an education for these children is touching and powerful. He accepts his calling to improve these children’s lives, and though he is given so many (albeit good) inspirational phrases, he owns all of them. His speech before the first competition, noting that unlike the private school children with which they compete, his Katwe team is ““running for [their] lives.” He exudes charisma and passion, but it always comes from a place of inspiration, never preaching.
When universal education is denied to a culture, it permits needless ignorance to spread. One must value their education to appreciate the advances brought by that education as not all children are granted to opportunities afforded in more developed countries. This is the lesson kids need to learn from movies like Queen of Katwe. If the family’s can grasp these concepts, it is hopeful they can return to school the next day ready to improve upon themselves. And parents, remember it is your task to remind them of the love you have for them and the joy you have when you see them excited to learn.