‘Queen of Katwe’ Paints a Gorgeous Emotional Portrait of a Girl

Photo Credit: Walt Disney Pictures
4.5

There’s a fine line to tread between entertaining an audience and sticking to the facts of a story of a real person, but Queen of Katwe finds that line and holds it for the duration of the film. The movie manages to capture the spirit of a young girl who longs for something more and keep an audience engaged with her, and her family, until the very end.

Phiona (Madina Nalwanga) is a teenage girl getting ready to compete in a major chess tournament when the film begins, but the story rewinds a few years to show the audience just how she gets to such a prestigious point. Growing up in Katwe, a slum of Uganda, Phiona is the middle child in a big family. Her single mom can’t afford school for her kids and they try their best to sell masa and vegetables in the market to keep a roof over their head. When Phiona discovers her brother sneaking away while he’s supposed to be working though, she follows him, and finds a former engineer and football player coaching a group of kids in chess. Intrigued by the game, Phiona wants to learn more, and what follows is her rise in the world of professional chess.

It’s hard to comprehend, especially for non-chess players, that something like it could potentially provide a ticket to prosperity for someone in Phiona’s position. Chess isn’t exactly what we think of as a lucrative sport. It’s a game of intense concentration and skill, sure, but it’s not pro-football, something we see in the news all the time. It can be hard to make exciting for someone who doesn’t play or doesn’t understand the game, but the movie does it beautifully by beginning Phiona’s first lesson, not with an adult teaching her the basics, but with another girl (Nikita Waligwa) from her town telling her the one thing she loves about it - that a pawn can become a queen.

If I’m completely honest, I knew from that moment forward that I was going to love watching Phiona’s story play out. The two young women in the scene come to life with that revelation, and as an audience, we know that’s the route Phiona’s about to take, even if her board is stacked against her from the very beginning.

Walt Disney Pictures

Because the movie goes through years of her life, it is a little difficult to buy Nalwanga as a 10-year-old Phiona as the movie begins, but the audience will be more accepting of it as it means there was no need for multiple castings in the film. There isn’t really time for the narrative to skip years ahead as other biopics do. This isn’t about the end of Phiona’s story, but her journey to get to where she is today. As a result, we need to see the same little girl go through the ups and downs of her quest to provide for the family. Nalwanga is a joy to watch on screen, even when Phiona starts to pick up her skills quickly and her confidence turns to cockiness. Even the moody teenager who has seen what life can be like outside of her neighborhood fits with Phiona as she struggles to both accept her world and try to get out of it.

It’s not just Nalwanga who is fantastic though. Lupita Nyong’o as her mother Harriet and David Oyelowo as her coach are both equally amazing in their roles. If this was any other story, the script writer might have thrown in an unnecessary romantic subplot or two between them, but instead, Coach Katende remains faithful to his wife and her daughter throughout the story and Harriet only flirts with a man when trying to get a good exchange rate as the narrative sticks to the facts and doesn’t try to “Hollywood up” events. Harriet puts the lives of her children, the food on the table, and the roof over their heads first. She’s told time and again that she could seek a different way in life, find a man to take care of her, but she doesn’t, and I love her for it.

Harriet’s love for her children is fierce and all consuming, and Nyong’o shows that with every blink of her eye and set of her jaw. Even as she berates her daughter Night (Taryn Kyaze) for taking up with an older man because he’ll buy her nice things, the audience can see it’s only because she knows what will come next for Night, and she doesn’t want that for her. She also doesn’t want her children spending their days playing chess, but working, but over time, Harriet realizes that if she wants a better life for her children, she just might have to let them go.

Walt Disney Pictures

It isn’t just the hard luck story and the emotion behind it that makes the movie gorgeous to watch though - it’s the color palette. Filmed on location in both Uganda and South Africa, there’s no hiding away on film sets in sterile conditions. The scenery, the wardrobe, the props are all brought to life with a richness that makes the movie feel like you could reach out and touch it. There’s no avoiding the muddy waters or fading and crumbling buildings either, providing for an authenticity that the movie would never have had if it had been filmed in Hollywood.

The cast is also populated by native South Africans and Ugandans, giving realism to the people being brought to life. Something as small as a hand gesture or the body language created by walking through the crowded marketplace is all real instead of manufactured. There is also, thankfully, no inclination on the part of the filmmakers to cast Caucasians in the role of any of the film’s heroes. That seems like an obvious route to move away from as all of the central players in the story are Black, but we live in age where whitewashing was thought to be a thing of the past and has returned with a vengeance, especially in films like Aloha, The Great Wall, etc. It shouldn’t be a point we have to make when considering a film for an audience anymore, but Disney seems to be moving in the right direction.

Queen of Katwe gets a limited release on September 23 and goes wide in theaters on September 30. Up against the likes of action-dramas Deepwater Horizon, also inspired by true events, it might not make a huge dent in the box office, but it certainly deserves to.