Queen of Katwe (2016)

Directed by Mira Nair
Written by William Wheeler

Whenever Disney rolls out its next melodramatic, inspirational sports movie, part of me thinks, “Here we go again.” We’ve seen it time and time again, it’s tried, but gosh darn if it isn’t true. And gosh darn if Disney doesn’t do it better than just about anyone else in the business of warming hearts, moving emotions and inspiring the masses. It may be just slightly a cheat to call Chess a sport. It’s not, but it is a game and therefore lies within that realm of escape which sports and games often stand for when it comes to delivering the underprivileged, undervalued, underdog and inspirational story. I’ve never taken too much to the game, though I will happily surrender to my nephew’s four move checkmate (still trying to figure that one out), but I can certainly appreciate the intricacies of the game, and the lessons which can be gleaned from its strategy.

After losing their father, Phiona (Madina Nalwanga) and her siblings Night (Tayrn Kyaze) and Brian (Martin Kabanza) must scrap for every penny to help support their family, which is held up by their strongwilled mother, Harriet (Lupita Nyong’o). Seeking escape from their impoverished life, Phiona and Brian begin learning the game of chess from Robert Katende (David Oyelowo), who works for the local outreach ministry. Phiona becomes a natural, first beating the other children, then progressing all the way to national tournaments. She begins to see a better life for her and her family, but her mother fears she is being held by a false hope, one which will prevent her from contributing to the survival of their family in the harsh conditions of Katwe, their hometown in Uganda.

As with any Disney film, I have reserved hope of a winning formula. Thinking about their most recent sports movie, Million Dollar Arm, there is plenty of promise and entertainment, but it also lacks a certain polish to make it a truly great or inspiring film. As this film was getting its legs underneath it, I feared the same lack of polish was dooming Mira Nair’s latest effort. However, it soon found its footing and took off in the heart department, crafting a winning film with a winning formula and a winning cast. Central to the film’s ability to move my emotions and warm my heart were the performances, lead by incredible turns by the familiar faces in the film, Lupita Nyong’o and David Oyelowo. Madina Nalwanga, however, shines bright in the lead role as well, giving the veterans a strong on screen partner.

It is no surprise that the film is filled with the cliches of any “based on a true story” sports movie, and it should be no surprise that it leans heavily on the symbolism of the game of chess, equating its struggle with the struggles of real life. Queen of Katwe manages to not be clunky with these cliches, however, and survives by doing them well with superbly calculated performances. It is assumed that the Queen referenced in the title is in fact Phiona herself, a chess prodigy who made something for herself and family with her skill and perception of the game of chess. But her mother, Harriet, brings forth such power and determination to make me think this film is really about the strength and responsibility of motherhood. How being a mother is a willing sacrifice which propels the game forward towards success. Again, I am not saying this is original, or even surprising, but Nyong’o and Nair portray this character with remarkable fortitude and determination.

I was not expecting the emotional impact this film was able to make on me. I knew it was coming and yet I could not avoid it. Queen of Katwe is the type of movie which pulls so hard on the heartstrings that it reminds me of what I love so very much about movies. I enjoy a good action film, documentary or art house feature, but at the end of the day what drew me most to films is the ability to escape and be inspired. Queen of Katwe has inspiration in droves daring its viewer to dream, no matter how big or small, and to put in the work and have the attitude it takes to accomplish your dreams. Disney has once again shown us that the impossible is in fact possible. I shouldn’t be surprised, yet I can’t help but be swept up by the story of Phiona Mutesi and her incredible mother.

*** – Very Good

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