'Queen of Katwe'
‘Queen of Katwe’ is a feel-good movie from feel-good Disney that makes feel-good pictures feel good. It’s not groundbreaking. It’s not even particularly surprising. However, the movie is quite well made and sweet without being overly syrupy.
This is one of those true life inspirational tales you’ve heard a thousand times before, and it makes perfect sense that Disney is the studio releasing and representing the film. These sorts of stories are fairy tales, and that’s the Disney stock in trade.
Set in the slums of Uganda, Madina Nalwanga plays Phiona, a 9-year-old child who sells corn on the streets with her mother (Lupita Nyong’o) and four other siblings. Their father has long since passed. They live in a tiny shack. It’s grim, but they are happy. One day, Phiona wanders into a local chess club run by a volunteer teacher (David Oyelowo). She’s drawn into the club because they offer free porridge, but soon becomes entranced by the game. Despite never having been to school or even knowing how to read, Phiona is quickly able to defeat all the other players and eventually her teacher. She enters into contests and inevitably wins. This causes friction at home because she gets a taste of a new life and begins to resent her circumstances, but as with all stories of this sort, there’s a happily-ever-after nearby.
Phiona Mutesi might be a real person and the film might be an accurate representation of her life, but if the story didn’t exist Disney would have to invent it. Themes of family, integrity, honor, and diamonds rising from the rough fill out the tale naturally. It’s all very moving, rousing stuff. While it’s entirely predictable, this is the type of predictability that comforts like a warm hug. It also helps that directing duties went to Mira Nair (‘Mississippi Masala’, ‘Monsoon Wedding’). She shoots the movie through explosions of color, giddy montages and grand sweeping emotions. It feels larger-than-life and grounded at the same time. The story has stakes and fractions, but love shines through every relationship and plot thread.
The cast is impressive as well. Madina Nalwanga is an incredible find. As Phiona, she has depth with an inner strength impossible to deny (as well as an uncanny ability to act out silent think-y chess battles, which isn’t nearly as easy as it looks). David Olelowo is predictably strong as the required coach/father figure, providing a loving core and a tough enough exterior to feel like more than a teddy bear. However, the best performance is likely from Lupita Nyong’o, playing a stubborn and concerned mother who fears for the changes in her daughter’s life because she doesn’t know anything beyond her own meager existence. It’s a heartbreaking and unexpectedly dignified performance that elevates a role which easily could have felt like little more than a worrying plot device.
‘Queen of Katwe’ is a delightful and sweet little movie that sets its sights on a very specific brand of inspirational fairy tale and never deviates. Cynics will scoff and movie snobs will roll their eyes, and they aren’t wrong to do so. The brand of romanticism, melodrama and wish fulfillment presented here is unabashedly sentimental and conventional. The movie has no surprises for anyone who has seen this type of story before. The strengths all come out of an uncommonly strong telling. For those excited by the brand of life affirming predictability, it’s a joyous experience. That’s fine. If these types of movies need to exist (and clearly they do, for better or worse), we’d be lucky if they were all as well made and sincere as ‘Queen of Katwe’.