Queen of Katwe (2016): Written by William Wheeler, directed by Mira Nair. Starring: Madina Nalwanga, Lupita Nyong’o, and David Oyelowo. Running Time: 124 minutes. Based on the book of the same name by Tim Crothers.
In many ways, Queen of Katwe hails from a long tradition of dime-a-dozen biopic pics, a story of a person with a prodigal talent who, through a combination of smart mentorship and good luck, rises out of obscurity (and often depravation to boot) to gain the sort of fame and fortune they otherwise could only have dreamed of. This particular film never really rises above the kind of storytelling formula this entails, which does hold it back from being genuinely groundbreaking. However, it is anchored by so many powerful and indelibly charming performances by its sprawling cast that it still holds its own, and makes for an extremely compelling watch.
Our setting is the small (and extremely poor) Ugandan village of Katwe, where a single mother, Harriet, (played by legend-to-be Lupita Nyong’o), fights tooth and nail to clothe, feed, and raise her four surviving children following the death of their father and another child. It’s a living that demands endless resourcefulness and a tough hide, especially with the oldest daughter, Night, being courted by the sort of man Harriet refers to with contempt as a “hyena.” Their days mostly consist of selling corn in the marketplace, with all members of the family taking part, but the middle children, Phiona and Theo, are soon distracted from their usual tasks when they are drawn to a local chess club organized by Robert (David Oyelowo), an aspiring engineer forced to make ends meet for his young family by working for a local ministry in youth outreach.
While hardly a master of the game himself, he quickly realizes he has a potential prodigy on his hands in Phiona, who learns the ins and outs of the game very rapidly despite having no formal education of any kind. He soon starts pushing more and more for her and her fellow chess players (most of whom, not just Phiona, are indeed extremely talented) to attend various national and even international tournaments, and this quiet, unassuming, soft-spoken girl from a forgotten corner of Uganda soon becomes a beloved icon in her hometown and indeed throughout her country when she begins to win a number of prestigious awards.
A big strength for this film, especially in light of certain recurring tendencies in Western cinema, is that no white savior to be found. This is a movie by and about Africans, and while that may seem like something rather sad to make a point out of in the 21st century, I couldn’t help but feel a certain relief when this struck me. By preventing any distracting focus on white vs black racism, the movie is able to focus its nuances on more subtle differences within many African communities, especially between the more wealthy, cosmopolitan cities and the slums; some of the boys first agree to join the club only after Robert dangles the prospect of them getting the chance to show up “those city boys.”
Indeed, the movie never really does go for an overarching “message,” but its undertones about how mutual dislike and stereotyping- of ALL sorts- can affect relationships and hold people back from being their best selves. One of the film’s most powerful moments occurs when, on their way to their first big tournament, the children first see King’s College. Despite it being just a short drive from their village, it may as well be another planet for how strange, new, and alien it is to them.
There are many aspects of the narrative that don’t work- the beginning is very choppy and it takes a while to establish who is who, and what their relationships to each other are- and while there is some second-act examination of how burgeoning stardom starts to go to Phiona’s head, it’s never really developed in a way that’s more than perfunctory. Nonetheless, Madina Nalwanga is a revelation in the title role, and she is more than adequately backed up by powerhouses David Oyelowo and Lupita Nyong’o (both as remarkable as always) as the adults with the most influence over her life. Lupita’s ability to convey the acute pains of a loving (yet demanding!) parent forced to face the limits of her ability to teach her child, and the need to, eventually, allow her to find her own way, is sweet and poignant and heartbreaking all at once, often captured in a mere glance. I’ve missed seeing her on the big screen so, so much.
Much to its credit, Queen of Katwe avoids going for soaring music, loud oratory, or big, overblown emotional scenes with its characters to get its remarkable story across. It relies on the immense talent of its cast and their ability to reveal the human spirit that ebbs and flows and thrives even in the midst of despair, and that is always ready to peak out and shine when given the right opportunity. It is, above else, heartwarming and inspirational, which is all it ever needed to be.