Queen A Katwe a Light, Joyous Diversion


Directed by Mira Nair
Disney Studios, 124 minutes, PG.

Director Mira Nair is best known to American audiences for Mississippi Masala (1991) and Monsoon Wedding (2001). Her forte lies in presenting people of color in a positive light and in underscoring cultural misunderstanding. This time she turns her attention to Africa. She has joked that Queen of Katwe is the first Disney film made on that continent that doesn't star a singing animal.

It is a feel-good movie set in an unlikely place: the Katwe slums of Kampala, Uganda. Katwe is a desperate place where those lucky enough can rent a makeshift plywood and tin hovel, which is where 10-year-old Phiona lives with her widowed mother, Nakku Harriet (Lupita Nyong'o), her infant brother, and her take-a-walk-on- the-wild-side older sister Night (Taryn Kyaze). There's not much hope for Katwe kids; they are the sort that must hawk goods in traffic each day to help put food in the cooking pot.

Phinoa's life takes a detour when she (Madina Nalwanga) spies Robert Katendi (David Oyelowe), a missionary school recreational director, teaching kids how to play chess. He invites her to come into the school, though she smells so bad that even younger slum kids scorn her. But not for long, as Phiona soon masters chess in ways that are intuitively brilliant. Dare she, or the peers who come to admire her, dream of life outside of Katwe? There are several touching scenes in which the Katwe children journey to posh places and are literally overwhelmed by what they see. Should such children even consider going beyond their station in life? Of what good is a chess champion in the slums?

One might assume that, from a direct standpoint, Nair's challenge would be to make chess visually exciting. That's actually not as hard as it sounds. In United States, baseball, boxing, and horse racing are the sports most often presented on film– probably because they lend themselves the best to dramatic 'moments' on which the outcome rests. So too for chess, which has been the subject of dozens of very successful films, quite a few of which spotlight how it helps those from disadvantaged backgrounds experience moments of glory. That's partly true, because it seems that topnotch chess players are often born rather than trained. (Some sports for harder to depict on film. Have you ever seen a film featuring tennis, golf, or basketball that looks realistic?)

Queen of Katwe is based on a true story and is indeed a feel-good flick. Is a path- breaking filmmaking? In all honesty, it could have been a made-for-TV film, which is how most people will see it: as a download on the small screen. That's fine, as there is nothing here that a large screen would enhance. It's also okay that this film deceptively elides time, is loaded with clichés, and sports all-too-convenient triumphs in situations that would have been more dire in actual context. The film is well acted especially by Ms. Nyong'o (who won an Oscar in 12 Years a Slave). She plays well beyond her thirty-four years and is totally convincingly as a fierce protective mother of three. As always, David Oyelowe (Selma, The Butler, The Last King of Scotland) is superb, and Ms. Nalwanga is simply infectiously charming.  

Sometimes you just want to feel-good movie. As Disney films go, this one is pretty good. And there are no singing animals—though there is a soundtrack that features pop stars such as Alicia Keyes, P-Square, and Radio and Weasel.

Rob Weir

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