“This is a place for fighters”
The story of Phiona Mutesi is perfectly tailored for a Disney-produced true-life inspirational sports drama. As a nine-year old girl living in the Katwe slum of Kampala, Uganda selling maize with her siblings to help support their single mother after their father died of AIDS, who would have expected she’d become Woman Candidate Master at chess? But that’s exactly what happens shortly thereafter, her decision to follow brother Brian to his ministry-financed chess class one day in 2007 changing her life forever. It was as though insults about her smell changed to applause overnight, Phiona’s prodigy-level intelligence allowing her to see eight moves ahead despite never working with anyone other than her coach Robert Katende. Her only brush with a Master came from her books studied under candlelight.
This is the rags-to-riches tale America eats up and ESPN’s Tim Crothers authoring the magazine article and book that screenwriter William Wheeler adapted made the transition a no-brainer (Disney of course owning the sports station). What renders it into a conversation piece beyond feel good warmth, however, is the inspired choice of acclaimed director Mira Nair behind the camera. An auteur of note who is connected to Uganda through her 1991 film Mississippi Masala and her Maisha Film Lab for young directors in Kampala, she possesses the power to turn this otherwise by-the-numbers success story into more. And for the most part she does with a vibrant color palette and award-worthy performances. The script’s clichés eventually handcuff it from being truly great, but “very good” is good enough.
I loved the first half to two-thirds of Queen of Katwe. Its depiction of Phiona’s (Madina Nalwanga) home is bleak but hopeful; her strong-willed mother Harriet (Lupita Nyong’o) does whatever’s necessary to instill a sense of pride and responsibility in her children. We get a sense of the worth given to this world’s women as objects, Harriet fending off constant advances while eldest daughter Night (Taryn Kyaze) falls for a motorcyclist delivering empty promises. It’s a hard life with numerous ways in which you could compromise yourself before finding out “better” comes at a cost. To survive is to be paranoid and tough. There’s no reason why Harriet shouldn’t assume Robert (David Oyelowo) is teaching her kids chess to make money by gambling. Why else would he?
Robert Katende knows this life, that’s why. He was an orphan who worked his butt of to go to university before finishing top of his engineering class. But jobs in that field are hard to come by and he has a teacher wife and young child who needs care. So he takes a job offered to him by the ministry to teach sports to the locals (it’s announced as a general position although we only see the chess training after an initial soccer practice). To Harriet’s credit, Robert did learn the game himself to hustle city kids out of their money—that’s how he paid tuition. It’s also those stories that recruit Brian (Martin Kabanza) and Ivan (Ronald Ssemaganda) into learning. Beyond that, though, his motivations are pure.
It’s a lot of fun watching Phiona, Brian, Ivan, Benjamin (Ethan Nazario Lubega), and Gloria (Nikita Waligwa) practice together as machismo makes way to camaraderie and individual success to national pride. They know nothing about the manners necessary to eat dinner with elite students at their first tournament, but they know board strategy. Unfazed when in the midst of a game, victory injects them with an electric energy to dance around the room and snap their fingers. These are kids having the time of their lives playing a game wherein the “little guy” (pawn) can become the “big guy” (queen) if only he/she has the perseverance to do so. This is a lesson we should all embrace. Anything is possible if we’re willing to put in the work.
Where the script begins to fall apart is after this initial wave of success. Tragedy strikes as circumstances for Harriet and the kids becomes direr. I get that a lot of what happens probably did occur in the real life, but in the context of this story it becomes overkill because we know the stakes and the struggle. Phiona had already overcome so much up until this point that it would have been fine to shift focus onto her completely. Show Harriet responding and sprinkle in details about Brian and Night’s tough journeys, but don’t continuously alternate between everyone to tug at heartstrings already fully invested. I naturally opened myself up to this girl and her coach, deciding to manipulate me further after the fact is wholly misguided.
Doing this allows Nyong’o the opportunity to showcase her talents, but it’s somewhat at the detriment of the story because this is also a make-or-break point for Phiona. The moment we begin to spend more time with Harriet is also the moment when Phiona tastes the high life and becomes complacent. This is where ego and entitlement set in, where Robert needs to dig deep and discover a way to transform this champion back into the fierce but hungry girl she was at the start. Besides one moment of distress, however, this subplot all but disappears. Phiona escapes her tantrum unscathed but there isn’t enough time to deal with it despite that drama seeming more integral to the story than an extended sequence of Harriet selling a dress.
With too much repetition in what Harriet will and will not do when it comes to raising money, Nyong’o’s performance becomes overshadowed by the script’s inability to give her something new. And because we spend less time with Robert and Phiona as a result, we lose our grasp on the real message. We know what’s being overcome—we crave the excitement and joy of finding victory because of it. But that never really happens. The chess itself is a periphery player, the camera less involved in moves as the broad expressions of the combatants. Act Three feels inauthentic as a result, an unfortunate truth after its rousing beginning. Hardly enough to derail Queen of Katwe‘s success, it does make you wonder how much better it could have been.
courtesy of Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures