The setting of Disney’s new sports film Queen of Katwe is as unconventional as the setting is removed from the usual sports movie. The story follows 9-year-old Phiona Mutesi as she struggles to survive in the poverty-stricken slums ot Katwe, Uganda. Her mother, Harriet, tries to stay strong for her family despite some major obstacles life throws at her. Phiona stumbles across a chess program run by Robert Katende only to discover she has the requisite skill and creativity to play tournament chess at a level that might just provider her a way out of the slums.
The movie stars newcomer Madina Nalwanga as Phiona and award winning actors Lupita Nyong’o as her mother and David Oyelowo as the chess coach Katende. The entire cast each has their moment to shine including some excellent performances from the other kids on Phiona’s chess team.
Director Mira Nair, who is best known for her lush and vibrant films, also makes the slums of Katwe a character in the film. She takes a lot of time to set up exactly how hard life is there and when Phiona returns after having had a taste of life outside the slums, you can see how important it is for her to escape it.
I’ve been a fan of Mira Nair’s since watching Mississippi Marsala in my college film theory class. It was her first ‘big’ film and starred Denzel Washington as an outsider to the Mississipi Indian community who had their own prejudice against African-Americans. Ten years later with more films under belt, she directed Monsoon Wedding, which at the time became the highest grossing Indian film ever.
In 1989 Nair moved to Uganda to make films, but became frustrated with the quality of films available to her. She started the Maisha film school to help produce a group of trained artists and has since graduated more than 650 people, many of whom helped her on Queen of Katwe (they made up 30% of the staff). Nair has kept a home very near to the city where this story was set and the young actress who portrayed Phiona actually grew up in a neighboring village to Katwe.
Lupita Nyong’o and Mira Nair actually have a connection that goes back to Nyong’o’s early days in Hollywood, Nyong’o served as Nair’s intern on her 2007 film, The Namesake, and was her production assistant in at Mair’s Ugandan film school in 2006.
Queen of Katwe is, of course, based on a true-story. Although life in Katwe was hard, Nair also makes sure to show that people are complex. They laugh, dance, struggle, fight and love. For me some of the best moments of the film were watching Phiona and her team mates interact. Like in Nair’s earlier films, the clash of cultures and dealing with prejudice play a big role.
Disney and ESPN collaborated to produce this unconventional heroic sports story. You’ll definitely recognize the usual beats found in triumphic sports films, but the genius of Nair’s direction is to cloth them in such fantastic acting and realistic setting that you’re not paying close attention when the expected beat happen.
Sadly, some of the weakest moments of the film are the key moments where chess is being played. It’s really the downfall of almost every sports triumph film. I would have liked to see more of the thought and strategy involved in the moves rather than the dramatic music. That sort of internal dialogue is hard to portray, but I enjoyed how they did it in the recent Sherlock Holmes movies and BBC TV Show.
Thankfully the movie hangs its hat on how the stories of Phiona and her family, her coach and his family, and her teammates comes together. It’s actually a very contemporary movie with the final scenes taking place just last year. Be sure to stick around for the credits where you see the actors paired with their real-life counter parts and learn what they’ve been doing since the story took place.
I’m predicting many nominations for Queen of Katwe in upcoming awards season. The question is how well will it do at the box office. I think it might have done better a little closer to the November holidays. In theaters now, I hope you’ll go see Disney’s Queen of Katwe.