Mira Nair’s inspirational chess drama Queen of Katwe is remarkable in the simplest but most profound way: it’s an American film about Africa that doesn’t feel like it was made by tourists. The film, based on the life of Ugandan chess prodigy Phiona Mutesi, was partially shot in the Kampala slum of Katwe, where Mutesi grew up. Nair, the Indian-born, New York-based director of Monsoon Wedding and The Namesake, has worked in Kampala before. She shot part of her film Mississippi Masala there. She met her Ugandan husband during that shoot. And she subsequently founded a small Kampala film school, with a focus on helping young Ugandans tell their own stories in cinema. American films set in African countries tend to focus on white characters witnessing atrocities, and they usually treat Africa as an exotic, dangerous backdrop. Nair knows better. She has deep roots in Uganda, and they’ve given her enough experience and insight that she’s able to treat Katwe’s residents as people first, and parts of a familiar narrative second.
Which helps explain why Queen of Katwe is so unconventional, both as an underdog sports story and as a biopic. Walt Disney Studios produced the film, and it has the cherubically light, cheery gloss of a Disney production. But it also deals frankly with crippling poverty and systemic class issues. There’s no easy, definitive way out of the slum for Mutesi, no single big chess competition that will let her defeat some smarmy villain and permanently secure her future. This is the kind of uplifting story where devotion to a sport creates friendships and changes lives. But it’s the rare uplift story that also acknowledges the complexities of real life and real competition. It brings in all the triumph and satisfaction of a conventional sports movie while skipping the conventional routine.
Queen of Katwe covers a period between 2007, when Mutesi discovered chess, and 2011, when she traveled to Siberia for the international Chess Olympiad, at age 14. Madina Nalwanga (a first-time actor who was born in the Katwe region, and had a childhood similar to Mutesi's) initially plays Mutesi as a stubborn, bullish young girl who's hesitant to speak around other people, but fights back ferociously when bullied. She and her older sister Night (Taryn Kyaze) and their younger brothers are growing up in a single-room hut, selling maize on the street to help their widowed mother Nakku (12 Years a Slave Oscar-winner Lupita Nyong'o) keep food on the table. When Mutesi follows her younger brother to a church mission program where Coach Robert Katende (Selma star David Oyelowo) teaches chess to Katwe's kids, she's initially just curious. Then she stays for the free porridge. Her interest in the actual game comes later. At first, hanging around the mission is just another step toward getting enough food to survive.
Queen of Katwe takes the first of many unusual steps when some of the other chess kids mock Mutesi for being grimy and smelling bad, and she physically attacks them. Coach Katende doesn't step in to defend her or stop her. If anything, he approves of her spirited response: "This is a place for fighters," he says. He's a practical teacher whose chess lessons come with life lessons, about planning ahead and learning mental discipline. He knows his students are rough around the edges, and he doesn't try to polish or soften them. He just encourages them to learn, and tries to give them opportunities to prove themselves by enrolling them in competitions against elite schools, and eventually in international programs.
Queen of Katwe never focuses much on individual matches, opponents, or play styles, beyond noting that once Mutesi understands the rules of the game, she plays with a confrontational aggression that's rare for a girl her age. The film also doesn't take much interest in chess specifics or strategies, beyond highlighting pawn promotion, when a piece crosses the entire board and is upgraded to a more powerful piece, like a knight or queen. "In chess, the small one can become the big one. That's why I like it," says the tiny pugnacious girl assigned to teach Mutesi the rules of the game. The film doesn't miss the symbolism, as Mutesi works toward her own life upgrades.
Queen of Katwe is painfully practical about the difficulties she faces in trying to leverage her chess skills into the notoriety she needs to acquire sponsors and an education. The film's most poignant moments deal with the disappointments she faces when she has to come back from an international chess tourney to face the Katwe slums again, and to deal with setbacks like eviction, her sister Night running off with an older man, and a hospitalization her family can't afford. To Nair's credit, she doesn't play these events as operatic tragedies; they're the backdrop of a normal life for people growing up with limited resources and options. But the real-life struggles Mutesi faces stand in stark contrast to the abstract tactical ones on the board, where she's more capable of controlling the outcome. Without getting granular about the individual moves, Nair manages to make these chess matches riveting, because they stand in for so many other conflicts in Mutesi's life.
But Nair's biggest triumph is in capturing the energy of life in Katwe in a way that feels natural and knowledgeable. It comes in broad strokes, like the soundtrack packed with actual Ugandan pop, hip-hop, and dancehall artists who boost the movie's tempo. It comes in little touches, like the triumphant finger-snap gestures Mutesi and her fellow players use to celebrate their victories. And it especially comes in the way she lets so many members of the sprawling cast develop into characters in their own right. The screenplay (by William Wheeler, who also wrote Nair's 2012 movie The Reluctant Fundamentalist) gives a clear and immediate sense of Mutesi's character, and how she develops confidence and strength as her chess skills progress. But Wheeler also gives significant time to her proud, stubborn mother (whom Nyong'o plays with a beautifully passionate weariness), to her striving siblings, each looking for their own hustle and escape routes, and to Coach Katende, who has to balance the endless needs of his students with his own family. The filmmakers even make time for the other chess kids, who glare at each other over chess boards like solemn, icy junior Kasparovs, but sometimes break down in hysterics when they lose. The stakes are high and the situation is serious, but under their game faces, they're still just children.
Queen of Katwe is visibly a Disney movie, full of feel-good moments and kid-accessible humor. It isn't entirely immune to the idea of Africa as a colorful, exotic backdrop, and it isn't entirely free of broad, overstated messages. Its most artificially dramatic sequence, involving a flood, drags on too long without adding anything to the core narrative. But the film is still an endlessly entertaining surprise, in its gravity and its lightheartedness, and in the way it skirts the most obvious sports movie clichés. In an increasingly globalized culture, this kind of story must happen all the time, with small-town people finding that a specific talent or interest suddenly makes them into big-time celebrities. Nair's film is a joyous triumph in the way it makes the story accessible, without losing sight of the specifics that make it not just a true story, but a complete and real one.