Lupita Nyong’o and David Oyelowo Sar in Queen of Katwe
“Queen of Katwe” doesn’t veer from the family-friendly inspirational sports movie playbook — there’s a plucky protagonist looking for a way out, a hardworking single mom concerned about false hopes, a committed coach seeking personal redemption. But the Disney release from veteran helmer Mira Nairis quietly radical in enough ways to make you cheer despite the cliches.
In telling the true story of a preteen girl in Uganda who becomes an unlikely chess prodigy, “Katwe” is the rare Hollywood film that never sets foot in the U.S. and doesn’t focus on a white hero to make that point of view more “universal.” It respects its characters’ Christian faith, without emphasizing religion in an attempt to rope in “faith-based” ticket buyers. And it’s a film about real people facing real problems, not pre-sold brands battling it out amid CGI-enhanced spectacle.
What that means for the box office is hard to predict — the film could land anywhere from well-intentioned disappointment to sleeper success in the crowded fall season — but it should emerge as a valuable addition to Disney’s library once word of mouth spreads among family audiences and educators.
When we first see heroine Phiona Mutesi (Madina Nalwanga) she’s on the cusp of becoming a national chess champion, and the narrative skips back a few years to trace how she got there. Only 9 years old when she discovers the game, Phiona lives in extreme poverty in a shantytown called Katwe, just outside the capital city of Kampala. Her mother Harriet (Lupita Nyong’o) hawks vegetables to support Phiona and her two younger brothers. Another sibling and Phiona’s father have both passed away, while teenage sister Night (Taryn “Kay” Kyaze) has taken up with an older man.
Bleak circumstances aside — and the script by William Wheeler understandably omits many of the harsher details of life in Uganda included in Tim Crothers’ nonfiction book of the same name — Phiona is nothing if not determined. She refuses to let her gender, social status, or lack of an education (her mother can’t afford the expense of sending her to school) stand in the way of mastering the strategies of chess.
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