Disney's banked on sports films for the last decads, relying on stories of athletic prowess anchored by men. Their latest foray into the inspirational drama praises intellectual altheticism anchored by women; Queen of Katwe looks to slip undetected by audiences this week due to a hackneyed, and unexplainable, series of limited releases by the studio. Unfortunately, this threatens to bury one of the brightest, warmest and all-around best acted films of the year!
Phiona Mutesi (Madina Nalwanga) is a young Ugandan struggling to make ends meet for her put-upon mother (Lupita Nyong'o) and siblings. The one joy in Phiona's life is playing chess with a local group started by Robert (David Oyelowo). Robert's goal is to teach the children to gain confidence via this "game of kings" and soon notices Phiona's prodigious talents.
There's no better director than Mira Nair for this film. Nair's proficiency to blend feminist issues into foreign settings creates a vibrant mix of cultures with an eye towards progress. Despite its war-torn Ugandan setting, filled with flash floods, prostitution and poverty, Nair and screenwriter William Wheeler don't ask the audience to pity their characters, based on real people who stand next to their on-screen counterparts during the end credits. In fact, intelligence, both on and off the chess board is praised as the ultimate goal to lift people out of poverty. Robert asks, "Why should [Phiona] be denied the glory because she lives here?" Nair asserts that no one should be denied the right to learn and better themselves because of their circumstances
Based on our current political climate, and with several films emphasizing how "unnecessary" college is, Queen of Katwe's valuing of intelligence in all its forms is remarkable. Robert is a college graduate with a degree in engineering who questions whether a high-paying job is worth sacrificing the goodwill and joy he receives from teaching his "pioneers" chess. Lupita Nyong'o's Nakku isn't educated, but is more than smart enough to feed, clothe and shelter her children. Nakku struggles to instill in her children at the expense of bettering their lot in life. She worries that by giving her kids dreams they'll only realize the crushing defeat of not achieving them.
Robert and Nakku are on the same playing field while promoting different goals that aren't telegraphed as good or bad. There's no preaching within Wheeler's script, short of promoting confidence in oneself. Chess may be the sport where "the small one can become the big one," but that's evident in what every character does to survive, whether it's finding joy in something small to conquer the constant daily oppression or holding down multiple jobs.
Lupita Nyong'o who dominates as one of Hollywood's shining stars in this ensemble cast. The tough single mother has been done in countless films, but as with the rest of the film there's no desire to sympathize with her. The audience applauds her toughness, whether it's criticizing her daughter's no-good boyfriend (Nakku's pride being her fatal flaw) or selling her best dress to get a bit of kerosene for Phiona to read into the night. This is a woman willing to die for her children, and it's rare to see a single mother in a film who doesn't bemoan her lot in life or neglect her children in order to better their situation.
Queen of Katwe works best when it's focused on its queens and complimenting Nyong'os heartwrenching performance is young newcomer Madina Nalwang as Phiona. The two actresses have a genuine rapport with each other that you'd believe they're mother and daughter just as much as Nyong'o in her motion-capture performance as a wolf raising a young boy in this year's The Jungle Book. Each woman (or, in Nalwang's case, girl) wants to rise above their circumstances and become master of their respective domain; for Phiona, being a literal master of chess is her dream.
Nalwang emphasizes that, like Nyong'o's Nakku, women are the masters of their own destiny, more than capable of being the best regardless of gender. Phiona finds her own inner resilence through chess. She apologizes when she beats other young men but it is her cockiness that threatens to be her undoing. Nalwang's earnestness isn't cloying and though the character revels in her newfound fame and adulation it's never annoying enough to draw sympathy away from her. Her strongest scenes are opposite Nyong'o and the eventual conclusion of their plotline managed to bring tears to my eyes while penning this review!
The rest of the young cast is astounding. Phiona's brothers and the other kids on the chess team possess distinct personalities, seen during their first tournament; know-it-all Gloria (the adorable Nikita Waligwa) starts wailing after a loss. Their interactions are best demonstrated as they travel to increasingly better locations to play. They're fascinated by the shiny, clean schools, cafeterias where they can consume ketchup, and yet they still decide to sleep on the floor.
David Oyelowo, the outsider in Phiona's world, brings a stoic grace to Robert. He champion's Phiona's intelligence, but never enough to risk falling into the "inspirational teacher" trap. This isn't Robert's story - Nair herself documented Katende's life in the short film A Fork, A Spoon and a Knight - though we learn about his mother's death and how his feelings of abandonment influence his own relationships with his family. Oyelowo uses the character to open up a world of fun and laughter that the children in the village aren't often allowed to have.
Nair's ability to capture a world most aren't privy to gives audiences the sweet and the sour without pandering to convention. The kids have fun, but aren't exploited like war-torn orphans who need your "sixty cents a day." The Uganda here is poor, true, but people grow up there; it's home. Alex Heffes' original score deserves praise with its mix of pop influences; drums and other African sounds make a multicultural score that's fun for all but still holds its regional influences.
Queen of Katwe is one of the year's best. The fact that Disney rolled it out so slowly limits its potential overall, but like its cast of underdogs that shouldn't be enough to stop you from watching and enjoying it.