TIFF 2016 Review: Queen of Katwe

Director Mira Nair’s Queen of Katwe is a moving and inspiring film

The sports drama is generally a formula affair. Usually these sorts of pictures focus on a single athlete or team that are labeled “underdogs.” They often come from nothing. Their fate is sealed, with little prospects for any sort of bright future, professional or otherwise. Enter some sort of guiding force – he or she, often battling issues of their own – that finds inspiration in the downtrodden and pushes them to greatness, inspiring them and thus, in turn, saving themselves.

Disney’s Queen of Katwe – which is based on a true story and the Tim Crothers book that first chronicled it –  follows this structure faithfully and because of this, the more cynical viewer might roll their eyes. But these kind of movies aren’t made for cynics. They’re made for people that look to entertainment to entertain and to provide both escape, emotional response and enlightenment. Ultimately, it’s not about the formula nor the anticipated outcome, it’s about the characters, the landscape they toil in and our investment in their plight. And it’s about the teller, not necessarily the tale.

And Queen of Katwe has a fine teller indeed. The film is directed by Indian/American filmmaker Mira Nair (Mississippi Masala, Vanity Fair), a visionary artist who, for the past 20 years, has lived and worked in Uganda. She’s a natural fit for this, the story of young Phiona Mutesi, a girl from the Ugandan slums of Katwe, who rises from the squalor and desperation of the situation she has been born into and emerges a world champion chess player. Nair fully understands the Ugandan people and, most importantly, the landscape of the land. Her sympathetic eye ensures that her audience becomes completely immersed in Phiona’s world, making the mechanics of the plot seem organic and instilling in us a deep love for the country and the men and women who struggle within it. It’s a fairy tale, sure, but sometimes life’s adventures are just that.

Playing Phiona is newcomer Madina Nalwanga and she’s a revelation. Because Nalwanga’s presence is free of any ties to any other films, she is Phiona Mutesi and, under Nair’s urgent direction, the film often feels like a quasi-documentary. Phiona lives with her mother Harriet (12 Years a Slave’s Oscar-winning Lupita Nyong’o) and two brothers, selling corn in the slum streets in order to eke out their humble existence. When Phiona drops into a missionary chess club run by teacher Robert Katende (David Oyelowo), she quickly discovers she not only has an interest in the game, but a gift. As Kitende battles societal sneering at “slum kids” playing the Game of Kings, he pushes his team to compete in the World Chess Olympiads and Phiona becomes his star pupil, a girl with an almost supernatural ability to anticipate her opponent’s moves. But as she moves closer to global greatness, becoming a kind of folk hero to the people of Katwe in the process, the distance between Phiona and her proud, cautious mother grows.

Everything about Queen of Katwe glows. The cast is luminous (Nyong’o’s portrait of Harriet is another surefire contender come Oscar time), the music (by Alex Heffes) is evocative and the slums of Katwe serve as a character in and of themselves, a place full of danger, turmoil and a kind of broken beauty and grace. The film’s many pleasures aren’t derived from the inevitable destination it reaches, but from the experience of being in the world it so majestically evokes.  Queen of Katwe is a movie that opens a portal into a world that most of us will never visit and the great thing about it is that it reconfirms the basic truth that no matter our race, color, creed or social status, people are basically the same everywhere, with the same hopes, fears, loves and losses. It’s a remarkable, human story and a gorgeous family film.


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