Queen of Katwe is in many respects your typical feel-good sports story, elevated by the ways that it does diverge from the formula.
For one, the biopic of young Ugandan chess champ Phiona Mutesi is an all-too-rare mainstream movie about Africans, much less one that's not about their suffering. The film is able to overcome some of its narrative familiarity just by showcasing characters, locations and music we rarely see on screen. Having Monsoon Wedding director Mira Nair at the helm also brings a visual vibrancy and communal energy to the proceedings.
The film never quite reaches the heights of something like Ryan Coogler's Creed, another sports underdog tale that overcame its well-worn trappings in part by centering around people of color. But it is an above-average entry for the genre and another success in a surprisingly strong year for Disney (inexplicable Alice in Wonderland sequel notwithstanding).
Based on an ESPN Magazine article and book by Tim Crothers, the film follows Phiona (Madina Nalwanga), who lives in the slums of Katwe with her single mother Nakku Harriet (Lupita Nyong'o) and three siblings. When her older sister Night (Taryn Kyaze) runs off with a man, their dire economic situation becomes even more apparent.
She is able to find some escape when she and her brother (Martin Kabanza) stumble into a chess club being held by ministry worker Robert Katende (David Oyelowo). She proves innately gifted at the game and Robert takes notice.
Soon Phiona is traveling across the country and internationally to play in chess competitions and a way out of Katwe feels within reach. Yet she still must contend with her impoverished surroundings, her mother's concerns and her own feelings about her success.
Just by the synopsis, one can probably predict some moments sight unseen. Is there a scene where a well-off competitor treats the poor Phiona with disdain, then sputters in disbelief when she trounces him, and are there multiple chess metaphors for her life? Yes and yes.
Yet the film handles these familiar story beats skillfully and finds some unique ones as well. A good amount of the film is devoted to dealing with the headspace of Phiona experiencing her newfound fame — from an inflated ego after a string of wins to despair after a loss that she may never escape her economic situation.
It helps that the cast includes some immensely talented actors. Nyong'o, in her first prominent non-CGI role since her Oscar-winning turn in 12 Years a Slave, brings depth to the potentially cliched figure of the reluctant mother.
Should've-been-Oscar-winner David Oyelowo (Selma) is also very good, exuding warmth and decency in the mentor role of Robert. And newcomer Nalwanga impresses in what is likely the start of a long acting career.
Queen of Katwe is still an accessible crowd-pleaser in the vein of Disney's other sports films, perhaps more so than the company believes it to be. In a somewhat strange move, they decided to give the film an initial limited release typical of indies before it goes wide Friday.
Yet through its cast, director and setting, the film finds a way to stand out in the genre. And as a major studio movie about everyday Africans, starring and directed by people of color, it sadly remains something of a rarity.
Contact Jimmy Geurts at [email protected] or (813) 226-3402. Follow @JimmyGeurts.