Any inspirational sports movie, even an unusual one like Disney’s Queen of Katwe, has certain lines it has to color within. Whether the heroes win or lose, for instance, lessons must be learned, both by the film’s characters and those watching. If those lessons concern inequality and prejudice in some way, all the better. The good ones, however, know that it’s how you color within those lines that make the difference. Here director Mira Nair (Monsoon Wedding, The Namesake), working from a script by William Wheeler, brings a lot of thoughtful shading to a tale of triumph over adversity, resulting in a film that’s at once rousing and moving.
Based on the non-fiction book by Tim Crothers, the film opens in 2011 as 13-year-old Phiona Mutesi (Madina Nalwanga) nervously takes her seat at a chess tournament as her coach Robert Katende (David Oyelowo) looks on. The film then flashes back to 2007 and begins to reveal the odds against her sitting down for that match, or any match, in the first place.
A child of a slum on the outskirts of Kampala, Uganda — the Katwe of the title — Phiona lives in a rented shack next to a shop with her mother Nakku (Lupita Nyong’o), her older sister Night (Taryn Kyazze), and two younger brothers. They eek out a meager existence selling maize in the Kampala streets, going car to car in the downtown traffic jam and pleading for customers. How meager? Nair neatly establishes the family’s place on the social order when Phiona, drawn by the promise of free porridge, starts attending a chess club run by Robert Katende (David Oyelowo), a part-time employee at a local church mission. The other kids are too poor to afford school and face a future with little opportunity. But even they shun Phiona, telling her she smells bad. Back home, when Nakku establishes that Phiona and her brother have already eaten, she accepts their share of dinner. Sometimes the need to survive is the strongest family tie of all.
Soon Phiona discovers she has a talent for chess, maybe even a gift. Guided by Robert, who comes from a difficult upbringing of his own, she develops her skills, learning strategies to improve her game even though she can’t read the books from which they come. As she improves, Robert’s devotion to the chess team, dubbed The Pioneers, deepens. An engineer who’s yet to find a job in his field, he instead spends his time petitioning for the Pioneers to be included in school tournaments (and rallies his team in part by promising a chance to show up “city boys”).
His efforts take the team further than they ever imagined, and Phiona further still. In one affecting scene, Phiona leaves a Moscow airport and sees snow for the first time, a remarkable first for a girl who never expected to travel beyond a few square miles of her home. Later, on that same trip, she becomes overwhelmed by the pressures of competition and the strangeness of her new environment, and the place that filled her with wonder starts to look threatening and strange. Nair treats both moments with understatement and grace, letting Nalwanga (who’s great here and will hopefully turn up elsewhere soon) and Oyelowo carry the weight of the scene.
Other moments could benefit from a little more understatement. The closer The Queen of Katwe adheres to the inspirational sports movie playbook, the less interesting it becomes. But even here, Nair’s choices make a difference. When Nakku talks to Robert about filling her daughter with false hope — a familiar scene — her concern rings true. We’ve seen how little she has and how even at the seeming bottom there’s still room to fall thanks to a harrowing series of events that leaves one of the boys badly injured and the family without a home. Phiona has everything to lose by pursuing chess and it’s unclear what she has to gain. She’s making a leap of faith that involves not just her belief in herself, but in the belief that a better life is even possible — and that she can bear her old one if it’s not.
The stakes, in other words, couldn’t be higher, and without resorting to gimmicks or even taking that much time to explain the mechanics of chess, Nair creates a lot of tension around each match, then relaxes it as we get to know all the characters. The film spends less time at matches, however, than it does exploring who everyone is, how deeply they come to care for each other, and how much growing up Phiona does as her chess skills than it does in matches. And even if the film’s outcome is inevitable — refer back to the title — Nair creates a different sort of tension by making us care that everyone finds safety and happiness in a corner of the world where neither is in great supply.