ALL THE RIGHT MOVES Nalwanga and Nyong’o play mother and daughter in this family-friendly drama about a young chess champ.
In most cases, it would be an insult to say that one of the best things about a movie is its closing credits. Queen of Katwe is an exception. The Disney sports drama ends with a sequence in which each major and supporting player poses for the camera with the person on whom his or her character was based. The two exchange fist-bumps, beaming smiles, or just gazes of mutual respect.
The sequence is long but far from extraneous. It's a fittingly joyful and inclusive ending to a film that celebrates the achievements not solely of the title character, but of a whole group of scrappy, livewire kids who defied assumptions about their potential.
Directed by Mira Nair (The Namesake, Monsoon Wedding), Queen of Katwe is based on Sports Illustrated writer Tim Crothers' biography of Phiona Mutesi, a teenage chess prodigy from Katwe, a depressed area of Kampala, Uganda. Today, Mutesi (Madina Nalwanga) is still barely out of her teens, yet her young life offers plenty of material for a stirring underdog story. Illiterate and working full time to help support her family, she discovered chess at age 9 through a government outreach program run by engineer and athlete Robert Katende (David Oyelowo). Mutesi quickly proved to have a knack for it — such a knack, indeed, that she would go on to win national championships and compete at the global Chess Olympiad.
The film gives equal time to the points of view of Mutesi, Katende and Mutesi's proud and put-upon widowed mother (Lupita Nyong'o), who bristles at suggestions that she find a "sugar daddy" to help with the family finances. She's the kind of fiercely ethical, salt-of-the-earth mama bear who shows up in a lot of sports dramas — first opposing her daughter's new pursuit, then enthusiastically supporting it. But Nyong'o gives her a moody toughness that clearly stems from long, hard experience.
The story hits plenty of familiar beats, yet its setting and the actors' conviction combine to give it a feel-good freshness. Nair doesn't prettify or put a soft-focus glow over life in the slums, nor does she demonize or deify their inhabitants. Phiona is plucky, all right, but she also has bouts of despair and insecurity, just like any teenager. While she obviously loves the game of chess, the film doesn't hide that monetizing her wins is a priority for her family of five. "If only we could eat all these praises," her mom says grimly, toting another enormous trophy into their one-room abode.
Oyelowo anchors the film, taking a coach-and-mentor role that could have been insufferably virtuous and infusing it with physical dynamism. The scene where he uses an inspirational parable to calm his students before a championship is especially winning — not least because the kids are believable kids with believable fears, not cutesy moppets.
The pacing of Queen of Katwe lags in places, and Nair doesn't always succeed in generating suspense from the sight of two people moving pieces on a board. (Granted, that's a tall order.) But the film draws immense energy from its young cast. The extended credit sequence pays tribute to their spirit, and to that of the real young players who inspired them.
Queen of Katwe is unlikely to end the long tradition of sports flicks in which white first-worlders play the fearless-mentor-to-the-underprivileged role that Oyelowo takes on here. But it does show how much more powerful such a drama is when the coach character has a direct stake in the future of his charges, because they represent the future of his homeland. In chess, a long-lived pawn might just become a queen — and that's a message that crosses all boundaries.
Margot Harrison is the Associate Editor at Seven Days; she coordinates literary and film coverage. In 2005, she won the John D. Donoghue award for arts criticism from the Vermont Press Association.