'Queen of Katwe': Film Review | TIFF 2016

No surprise moves.

David Oyelowo and Lupita Nyong’o star with newcomer Madina Nalwanga in Mira Nair’s biopic of a Ugandan chess prodigy.

Phiona Mutesi, the gifted and determined teen at the center of Queen of Katwe, is an aspiring chess master who can see as many as eight moves ahead. Unfortunately, so can the audience: The inspirational true story of the Ugandan girl’s ascent through the competitive ranks lays out its pieces and strategies all too clearly. Even with director Mira Nair’s typically vivid sense of place and the charismatic central performances by David Oyelowo, Lupita Nyong’o and a striking newcomer, the film hits every note of plucky positivity so squarely on the head that it leaves little room for audience involvement. 

Critical objections aren’t likely to dim the lure of the two topliners, and many moviegoers are likely to find the biopic’s against-the-odds narrative rousing and irresistible. That it’s the rare mainstream movie set in Africa and not focused on war and deprivation — though they clearly inform the lives of the characters — also will be a draw. Promoting special rates for group ticket sales, Disney is banking on the femme-forward, family-themed release as an event movie. 

Nair’s affection for the characters is strong, and Madina Nalwanga’s portrayal of the resilient Phiona has an unsentimental clarity, devoid of self-congratulation. The girl’s doubts are as evident as her accomplishments, but the finer points of Nalwanga’s performance must vie with a screenplay that doesn’t trust the audience to draw its own conclusions.

Year by year, over the story’s half-decade, screenwriter William Wheeler parcels out the incidents in Phiona’s education and her family’s setbacks. Rather than building dramatic tension, the effect is that of protraction and repetition. Adapting sportswriter Tim Crothers’ book, Wheeler, who wrote Nair’s previous feature, The Reluctant Fundamentalist, takes every opportunity to hammer home its themes, leaving no Chess Metaphor About Life unturned or unuttered.

How Phiona hears those words, how they affect and transform her, is essential to the feature’s twinned grit and triumph. Usually they’re spoken by Robert Katende, the chess coach who recognizes the girl’s talent, and who Oyelowo plays with exuberance and sensitivity. Katende is a husband and father who has settled on a job with the Sports Outreach ministry. But while he thinks he’s merely biding his time before a more lucrative position comes along, one that will make use of his education as a civil engineer, in truth he’s discovering his true calling, a fact that his wife (Esther Tebandeke) understands before he does. Like much of what transpires in the story, when he’s forced to choose between engineering and coaching, any inner turmoil is quickly resolved. 

In Katwe, a hardscrabble slum of Kampala, the compassionate Katwende has added chess to the ministry’s program in order to engage the soccer holdouts — kids whose parents have forbidden them to play because they wouldn’t be able to afford medical bills for injuries incurred on the field. Such unforced acknowledgment of economic realities is among the film’s strengths. It finds especially compelling expression in Nyong’o’s deeply felt portrayal of Harriet, Phiona’s tough and wary widowed mother. 

In a predictable string of encounters that hit the required beats but stir up no true friction, the coach must convince Harriet to let Phiona and her younger brother Brian (a terrifically spirited and non-cutesy Martin Kabanza) remain in his chess program. Over hand-painted chessboards — one of many fine details in Stephanie Carroll’s production design, which uses some of the story’s actual locations, including the church where Katende taught his chess students — Phiona ruffles the egos of male opponents and swiftly rises to the top as a contender for regional and national titles. 

Her travels for competitions provide an opportunity to explore the idea of the city/country divide, something the movie does with a glaring lack of subtlety. From academic pooh-bahs to kids, the privileged types who Phiona, her coach and teammates encounter are cartoonishly insensitive snobs. Far more effective than the disdain-drenched exchanges that Nair stages is the way the Katwe kids fall silent as their bus turns onto the manicured campus of Kings College Budo boarding school. 

There’s relative emotional intricacy too in the subplot involving Phiona’s older sister, Night (Taryn “Kay” Kyaze), who believes that her new life with a flashy boyfriend (Maurice Kirya) is her ticket out of poverty. Her play for cosmopolitan sophistication is complicated not just by Harriet’s disapproval but by Night’s continued concern for the family. 

The movie is in large part a tribute to maternal sacrifice and devotion, and Nair captures something tender and fraught in the growing awareness between Harriet and Phiona that, in the words of Katende’s gentle admonition, “sometimes the place you’re used to is not the place you belong.” As with her young co-star’s performance, there’s fierce dignity and vulnerability in Nyong’o’s portrayal, and not a drop of self-righteousness. In a captivating and mildly charged transaction with a handsome shop owner (Ntare Guma Mbaho Mwine), Harriet briefly steps outside her day-to-day domestic struggles, or so it seems. 

Nair, whose personal and professional ties to Uganda stretch back almost three decades, to Mississippi Masala, approaches the material with a sure feel for local culture, enhanced by the bright patterns and textures of Mobolaji Dawodu’s costumes. Nair and cinematographer Sean Bobbitt, who worked with Nyong’o on 12 Years a Slave, use a dynamic mix of visuals: intimate character observation, elegant compositions accentuating the serenity of nature, bustling street scenes, and stylized jolts of subjectivity, as in Katende’s memories of childhood loss. 

The casting of Kampala locals Nalwanga, Kabanza and Kyaze as the three oldest Mutesi siblings deepens the connection to the true story, a connection that Nair emphasizes in a closing-credits sequence that pairs the actors with their real-life counterparts, making for some lovely moments of awkward shyness and emotion. Ugandan song tracks bolster the film’s specificity, while Alex Heffes’ score runs the gamut from inspired passages to heavy-handed tugs on the heartstrings that are right in tune with the screenplay’s general lack of nuance and Nair’s tendency to underline every message. 

After one of Phiona’s early victories, a competition official praises her chess playing, declaring that “such aggressiveness in a girl is a treasure.” It’s a wonderful line of dialogue, poetic and eye-opening. Phiona Mutesi’s story is inherently inspiring. If only Nair had been less aggressive in her crowd-pleasing maneuvers.

Distributor: Walt Disney Studios
Production companies: Disney presents in association with ESPN Films a John B. Carls/Cine Mosaic/Mirabai Films production
Cast: David Oyelowo, Lupita Nyong’o, Madina Nalwanga, Martin Kabanza, Taryn “Kay” Kyaze, Ntare Guma Mbaho Mwine, Esther Tebandeke, Jack Kinobe Sserunkuuma, Nikita Waligwa, Ethan Nazario Lubega, Esther Tebandeke, Maurice Kirya
Director: Mira Nair
Screenwriter: William Wheeler, based on the book by Tim Crothers
Producers: Lydia Dean Pilcher, John B. Carls
Executive producers: Will Weiske, Troy Buder
Director of photography: Sean Bobbitt
Production designer: Stephanie Carroll
Costume designer: Mobolaji Dawodu
Editor: Barry Alexander Brown
Composer: Alex Heffes
Casting: Dinaz Stafford

Rated PG, 124 minutes