Coming just one year after Edward Zwick’s Pawn Sacrifice, a biography of the early life of American chess master Bobby Fischer, Disney has released yet another chess picture, Mira Nair’s Queen of Katwe – a true, but far less well-known, story about a young chess prodigy named Phiona Mutesi. It has been said that genius can come from anywhere. Indeed, George Washington Carver was born into slavery. Abraham Lincoln was born in a one-room log cabin. Phiona Mutusi was born into abject poverty in Katwe – the largest of Kampala, Uganda’s slums, in 1996. One of the poorest nations in the world, Uganda is a country in which almost 40% of its population lives on less than $1.25 per day.
Phiona lives in a hut with her mother Nakku Harriet, her two younger brothers, and sometimes her older sister, Night. Night’s motorcycler boyfriend is a pimp who leads Night down the wrong path. At a missionary program, Phiona learns that soccer coach Robert Katende also teaches chess. Curiosity drives Phiona to learn just enough to experience defeating some of her classmates at her newfound game of brains and skill. Her brothers also learn chess. But soon Phiona “outgrows” her classmates, and Robert takes her to tournaments – first within Uganda, then elsewhere in Africa, then to the unofficial chess capital of the world, Russia. As each level of competition intensifies, Phiona becomes a local hero in Kampala – particularly within her own neighborhood.
But Queen of Katwe is not merely a crowd-cheering Rocky retread. No, this film is as much about African slum life as it is any specific individual. While Phiona’s is the story around which the action generates, we also spend time with Robert, and his wife and baby. Robert is actively seeking employment with an engineering firm because he’s not making ends meet with his ministry career. His wife thinks he spends too much time with his chess students, although she takes a liking to Phiona. These are real characters, very well developed by Nair and her screenwriter, William Wheeler. I contrast Queen of Katwe to the recent reboot of The Magnificent Seven. That picture sacrificed character development for action. Although the tournament scenes are plenty exhilarating, this one does not.
Particularly poignant is a sequence in which Nakku Harriet and her family (including Phiona) are evicted from their apartment, and forced to live on the streets for a couple nights. The scenes of Katwe’s homeless population living under a bridge are hard-hitting and pragmatic, without being overwrought merely to make a point.
The acting is top-notch. Newcomer Madina Nalwanga plays Phiona as a diffident teen, simply trying to help her mother eke out a living and care for her brothers. Her eyes only light up when she’s behind the chessboard – and even then, only when she senses victory. David Oyelowo (from Selma) plays the educated, nurturing Robert. And in the film’s best performance, Oscar-winner Lupita Nyong’o (from Twelve Years a Slave) plays the protective yet supportive Nakku Harriet – torn between encouraging young Phiona while shielding her from the dangers of the outside world.
Nair and Wheeler do fall into the sports cliché trap a time or two, such as when the wealthy private-school Sudanese competitors look down their noses at the Ugandan players. But those moments are few and far between.
Queen of Katwe is a solid, interesting story, told against the backdrop of a place with which most of us are unfamiliar. It is well-written and well-acted. And the chess scenes are actually exciting – unlike those in the interesting but underwhelming Pawn Sacrifice from last year. Queen of Katwe is the second best chess film I’ve seen. Unfortunately, it simply cannot compare to Steve Zaillian’s 1993 film Searching For Bobby Fischer, about the young life of child chess prodigy Joshua Waitzkin. It has nothing to do with Bobby Fischer (other than Fischer is Waitzken’s hero), but Zaillian’s cinematography makes the game of chess truly mesmerizing. Check out that one when you have time, but don’t miss Queen of Katwe this year.
Andy Ray’s reviews also appear on http://www.currentnightandday.com/
And he serves as a film historian for http://www.thefilmyap.com/