Of all the films to be screened this year at the BFI London Film Festival, 'Queen of Katwe' is surely the most heart-warming of the lot. In fact, I challenge anyone to watch this film and not feel their heart turn to gooey mush. With an overarching message of determination and keeping your fighting spirit, this decidedly un-Disney Disney film is a welcome surprise that should not be missed.
It’s a hard task making a movie about chess sound interesting. Even more difficult is actually making a chess movie that’s genuinely entertaining. As beloved as chess might be, the truth is, filming a chequered board and expecting audiences to keep up with what are supposed to be tense moments in the game can be painfully difficult, especially for those uninitiated to the moves and jargon associated with the game. That’s why when Disney announced they were making a biopic about real-life Ugandan chess champion Phiona Mutesi, it was easy to be sceptical. It’s Disney, so there must be an animated talking animal acting as chess guru, right? Surely it’s going to punch you in the face with saccharine sweetness. Wrong. Queen of Katwe has subtle depth and a lot of heart, and is refreshingly void of manipulative sentimentality – or animated animals.
The story takes places in a Katwe shantytown in Kampala, Uganda where we’re introduced to pre-teen Phiona Mutesi (Madina Nalwanga). Phiona has almost no possessions, can’t read, and spends her days selling maize in the streets to try and scrape together a few pennies to support her family, which includes two brothers, a rebellious sister, and her fiercely strong mother Harriet (Lupita Nyong’o). Phiona and her brother Brian (Martin Kabanza) serendipitously meet local sports ministry employee Robert Katende (David Oyelowo), who realizes that many of the slum kids he is working with don’t have any desire to play football, so he decides to teach them something that’s closer to his own heart: chess. He tells them how this game equalizes issues of class, race, education and income, and tells the children stories of how he was able to pay his way through university by beating the rich “city boys” at this universal game. Phiona decides to go along to one of Robert’s makeshift chess meets, and soon realises she has a knack for the game, with the rare gift of being able to see eight steps ahead when playing an opponent.
The film draws parallels between Phiona’s life and the art of chess, focusing on how the young girl is fascinated with the act of “Queening”, whereby a pawn makes it all the way across the board against all odds, and becomes a Queen. These nods to how the game is reflected in the young girl’s life are done subtly and effectively and never feel manipulative or heavy-handed.
The film avoids being sickly sweet, much thanks to the performances by Nyong’o and Oyelowo. Their carefully crafted acting grounds the film in a reality that rarely appears in Disney films. Oyelowo perfectly captures the kindness of a man who has seen a potential escape from the slums for a young girl and who tries as best he can to see her achieve a better life. Not once does he seem preachy or like he’s trying to overwork the overlaying message of the film. Nyong’o also does a stunning job as Phiona’s fiercely protective mother. Much too often the mother character in these sorts of films is relegated to the background or simply used as an emotional plot device. In Queen of Katwe, however, Harriet is as much a Queen as her daughter. She feels real, and this is undoubtedly thanks to the passion and commitment Nyong’o has brought to her character. From the furtive glances that tell us of her fear for her family’s future, to her defiant and sassy posture she takes when speaking to the men who try to mess with her family, Harriet is a force to be reckoned with, as is Nyong’o who has so skilfully brought her to life on the big screen.
It is also refreshing to see a movie about an African nation that isn’t full of war and strife, and which captures the streets of Uganda in a way that hasn’t been seen before. Of course poverty is depicted, but its portrayal is not manipulative or embellished. Much of the credit for this certainly goes to director Mira Nair and her technical team, including cinematographer extraordinaire Sean Bobbitt (12 Years a Slave).
This is a wonderful feel-good film that will resonate with everyone who has had to fight hard, one way or another, to get where they want to be. It reminds us, as Robert Katende rightly states, that “Sometimes the place you're used to, isn't where you belong. You belong, where you believe you belong.” Do yourself a favour and find your fighting spirit with Queen of Katwe.
Queen of Katwe is directed my Mira Nair and stars Lupita Nyong'o and David Oyelowo. Production Xomanies: ESPN Films, Walt Disney Pictures, Walt Disney Productions. Released in UK cinemas on 21st October.