QUEEN OF KATWE (8.5 out of 10) Directed by Mira Nair; Written by William Wheeler, based on the ESPN Magazine article and book by Tim Crothers; Starring Madina Nalwanga, David Oyelowo, Lupita Nyong’o; Rated PG for thematic elements, an accident scene and some suggestive material; Running time 124 minutes; In limited release September 23, expanding to wide release September 30, 2016.
Disney has mastered the genre of the inspirational sports story over the past few years, but they take it to the next level with this true story of a chess prodigy from the slums of Uganda. While they weave a story accessible to kids, the film deals with incredibly real and heavy issues of poverty, of what life is like for a girl or a woman in a very patriarchal society. But most of all it reminds us that genius and talent live everywhere and the waste that undoubtedly exists because many are denied opportunity and education.
Katwe is a slum in Uganda’s capital, Kampala. And by slum, I mean, people live in shacks, tents, and unfinished or dilapidated buildings or just simply on the streets. Young teen Phiona lives with her mother (Nyong’o) and siblings, making basic subsistence by selling fruit and spices on the street. She and her younger brother fall in with an out of work civil engineer (Oyelowo) teaching sports part time at a children’s ministry, who starts teaching the kids chess. The draw? They love the idea of a game where a lowly pawn can end up becoming a queen through making smart moves.
Phiona is an immediate natural, and soon she’s playing at a level competing with the best of all of the youth of Africa. But before she can compete with international masters, she has to overcome the limitations of being raised illiterate and without any education and the pressures of life in Katwe.
This is acting of the most supreme quality from Oyelowo and Nyong’o, who deserves an Oscar nomination for her work here as Phiona’s mother. She does more with a sideways glance than most actors do with an entire script. But the film wouldn’t work without a cast full of amazingly talented and charismatic kids who have to carry the bulk of the screentime.
In this is a lesson for other film studios and filmmakers: a movie doesn’t need A-list (white) actors in its lead roles to work. And there’s enough charisma and talent in the cast of mostly unknowns to put most recent films to shame. And the film couldn’t be more relatable and gripping, especially give the basic rags to riches, girl with great promise makes good story that is the basic of most of Disney’s intellectual property of the last century.
The only problem with the film is it starts a little slowly. But, like the opening moves of a chess match, if you give it a bit to develop, it becomes truly engaging.
And unlike most of the recent inspirational sports stories we’ve seen in the theaters (McFarland, USA, My All American), this story feels fresh and never falls into the cliches of the genre. On top of that, the emphasis on smart play and education is a great message for anyone.
This is a really great family film and worth your time and attention. If somebody doesn’t get nominated for an Academy Award, it’s time to start really questioning the Academy’s processes again. #OscarsSoWhite
8.5 out of 10