In the broad outlines of its narrative, Queen of Katwe looks like standard inspirational based-on-a-true-story Hollywood product. But what elevates the material here is a warm specificity and gentle, humane subtlety. It tells the story of a girl growing up in extreme poverty in Katwe, Uganda. She doesn’t attend school. Her widowed mother and three siblings scrape by selling cheap corn in the crowded marketplace. Hunger and the constant looming threat of eviction are ever-present concerns. One day she discovers a kind man running a program where he offers porridge and chess lessons to local kids. Food and fun draw her in, but passion for the game soon consumes her. She dreams of becoming a Grandmaster. The more she plays, the more she practices, the more it seems like this is a dream within reach, if only she can make it past the societal, economic, and structural impediments standing between a poor African girl and the world stage.
Director Mira Nair takes this terrific story and imbues it with a closely attuned sense of place and space, both in the details of the character’s lives and situations, and in the way their environment and experiences inform their worldviews. Nair is always a quiet, precise observer of humanity. Her works about culture clashes (like Mississippi Masala) and immigrants (The Namesake), rituals (Monsoon Wedding), radicalization (The Reluctant Fundamentalist), and the past (Vanity Fair), show an adept ability to inhabit a particular cultural context from the inside out instead of the usual outside in. Queen of Katwe is humbly remarkable in this way. Nair, from a screenplay by William Wheeler (Ray Donovan, of all things), sets the characters’ lives as the norm, with not a hint of an outsider’s eye or Western point of view intruding. This isn’t an exoticized or aestheticized foreign poverty. This is the everyday lived experience of real people, presented as such, understood with compassion and empathy, and used as the fertile soil from which its hard-fought successes can grow all the more inspirational for it.
The warm, believably lived-in spirit extends to the lovely performances. The lead girl (Madina Nalwanga) is intensely sympathetic as her timid steps into the world of chess blossom into passion, her natural talent so evident she’s soon way ahead of the rest. The other children are a fine ensemble chorus, from an adorable little boy excited to win and tearful when losing, to a sweet dimpled girl who loves the feminist power of the Queen ruling the board and throws a fit at a competition when an older competitor removes her precious favorite piece. There’s something refreshingly unaffected and natural about the child performances here. Meanwhile, the chess teacher (David Oyelowo) is so pure-hearted and good that he’s almost unbelievable, but for the weariness in his irrepressible drive to make a difference. He, too, had a rough beginning to his life, and current financial concerns, and though he left and got an education he has returned with the mission of helping children. He’s able to connect in the enriching and encouraging manner of all the best teachers.
Lupita Nyong’o plays the lead’s mother, struggling to get by but rising to every challenge. She’s suspicious of an activity that’ll take her children away from the daily selling in the streets, but also begrudgingly accepts that it just might win them the chance to go to school on a scholarship. Nyong’o carries a life of hurt in her eyes, deepening and strengthening our understanding of her perspective, and her tragic backstory, in just a glance, or a meaningful stare. Here scenes play out with such pained tenderness, it’s the subtlest and most mature (but not inappropriate or out of place) subplot I’ve seen in a family movie in ages. Together the adults in this story make up a fine core of goodness, representing how even people who agree they want the best for a child can approach the task with honest differences. Even the usual board members and rules keepers in the sports movie structure are well-intentioned, if infuriatingly small-minded at times (also a requirement of the form).
This is the best, smartest, and most honest Disney based-on-a-true-inspiration competition-based drama since Remember the Titans. It takes what could easily be sentimental or button pushing and instead treats the material seriously and respectfully, trusting in its inherent power. It doesn’t talk down to family audiences or find artificial reason to inject white or western perspective. Nair simply sees her characters where they are, regards their quotidian daily demands and chess strategy, and shows them with great clarity and minimum explanation, trusting the audience is smart enough to figure it out and follow along. This is a movie in which conflict arises naturally out of the pressures of the game and the struggles of their lives. Nothing is artificially pumped up for the sake of drama. It’s a strong, smart, and patient movie about strength of spirit and sharpness of mind, honed through hard work, good luck, and inner power. It more than earns its crowd-pleasing uplift.