“Queen of Katwe” begins with a few bars of “African music” – the sort of Disneyfied fare that is so insultingly generic that I burst out laughing before sobering up fast. It’d be a crying shame, I thought, if chess champion Phiona Mutesi got reduced to the “inspirational people of color” clichés that even now Hollywood hasn’t learned to sidestep. I needn’t have worried. Though this adaptation of ESPN reporter Tim Crothers’s eponymous nonfiction book certainly dips heavily into the inspirational sports playbook, it offers a depth and earned joy that makes Ugandan women its subject rather than its object. Chalk it up to the fact that, though this indeed hails from Disney, it is one of the most female-forward and people of color-led major studio productions ever to come down the pike.
It is directed by Mira Nair, who made her name with “Monsoon Wedding” (2001), an indie rhapsody set in her native country of India, before disappearing into a muddle of such disappointing productions as “Vanity Fair” (2004) and “Amelia” (2009). “Queen of Katwe” finds her back to form, set afire by two powerhouse female leads and the bustling, bright world of Katwe, the shantytown just outside Uganda’s capital city of Kampala. Nair’s Uganda connection goes back three decades, and her passion for the region is evident in every frame, from the bold pastels and patterns of Mobolaji Dawodu’s costumes to the teeming vistas of cinematographer Sean Bobbitt – who previously worked on “12 Years a Slave” with Lupita Nyong’o, who portrays Phiona’s widowed mom, Nakku Harriet – to the soundtrack, which, after the first scene, is actually pretty banging.
Phiona is played by Madina Nalwanga, who was discovered at a local dance academy for this role – though you’d never know it. Still and sure as few teenaged actors ever are, she holds her own against the formidable glow of Nyong’o as Harriet, a street vegetable vendor who supports Phiona and her two younger brothers. As we meet Phiona at age ten, another sibling and Phiona’s father have recently passed away, and her older sister Night (Taryn “Kay” Kyaze) has taken up with a local lothario willing to foot her bills. A fierce mama lion, Harriet refuses to take this easy way out, and so ferociously protects her remaining brood that at first she’s suspicious of the motivations of Robert Katende, the chess coach who recognizes her daughter’s talent, and whom David Oyelowo plays with a wet-eyed mischief he’s never evinced on screen before.
Katende is a husband and new father working with a local children’s ministry until, he thinks, he can find a more lucrative gig as a civil engineer. The fact that we know better from minute one in no way detracts from the pleasure and power of this film, which doesn’t traffic in clichés so much as soar with them. Lupita’s Harriet is a classic Mother Courage whose eyes burn with so much love that it beats in your own chest (between this performance and her turn in the Broadway show “Eclipsed,” she is emerging as the best actress of her generation), and Phiona’s ascent from illiterate street kid to national chess master doesn’t feel like a foregone conclusion so much as the happiest of codas. Hence the coach convinces Harriet to let Phiona and her younger brother Brian (the out-of-sight Ugandan actor Martin Kabanza) remain in his chess program, after which Phiona ruffles (male, moneyed) egos as she wins regional and national titles galore.”It offers a depth and earned joy that makes Ugandan women its subject rather than its object.”
Poverty is as fully present a character here as New York City is in Aughts rom-coms. Despite all the clichés this film doesn’t resist, its depiction of the financial hardships of this family and community is unusually clear-eyed >Daily struggle is omnipresent – Phiona and her family are so broke that they are rendered homeless, so hungry that they’re drawn to the ministry’s chess meetings because they come with free porridge – but the struggle is never fetishized. Instead, hardship is taken for granted – neutral, even – which is a revelation for a Western-made film set on the continent of Africa. Still, we feel the girl’s fear that she will never transcend her economic prison no matter how much she succeeds as a chess player. Her truest triumph comes not when she becomes her country’s champion but when she buys her mother a house of her own.
The real story of “Queen of Katwe” is of people going past their comfort zones, which is the best story cinema ever tells. This does not just entail a girl who miraculously sees eight moves ahead on a chess board before she even learns to read. It also entails the hard-scrabble community that encircles Phiona with matter-of-fact, abrasive love, and the universal conflict parents feel in between wishing the best for their children and wishing to keep them by their side forever. Singing and sincere, this film easily sails past the limitations of William Wheeler’s script. When rendered with a pure heart, sacrifice and devotion can never be oversold.
This originally appeared on Signature.