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Review: Queen of Katwe (2016)

Queen of Katwe (2016)

Directed by: Mira Nair

Premise: Based on the true story of Phiona Mutesi (Madina Nalwanga), a young woman living in the slums of Katwe, Uganda who was discovered to be a chess prodigy. Her skill at the game creates opportunities for her to escape her station in life.

What Works: Disney has an entire niche of sports films and they all follow the same basic formula. In movies like Glory Road, Million Dollar Arm, and McFarland, USA a coach (who is usually a middle aged white man) brings together a ragtag group of hungry but disadvantaged players (who are usually young people of color) and marshals their unexpected talent to compete against well-bred teams from prestigious schools. Queen of Katwe works within the Disney sports formula and does it well. Like the other successful films in this field, Queen of Katwe has the Horatio Alger appeal and it is enjoyable and entertaining. However, this particular title diverts from the Disney sports formula in a couple of important respects. The first is that it mixes up the racial element. Queen of Katwe takes place in Uganda and there is no white savior character in this film. The coach and his players are all Ugandans and removing the white savior element allows the film’s message of hard work and determination to play a little more credibly. The setting is an important aspect of this story and director Mira Nair presents Katwe with a great deal of reality and authenticity. The film has a feel for the place in which these people live and it captures the grit and discomfort of life in a slum. However, the movie isn’t wallowing in their misery either and Queen of Katwe portrays its cast as full-fledged people with humor and personality. It is incumbent upon sports pictures to be about more than scoring points. The activity should reveal something deeper about the characters and about life. Queen of Katwe is about a young woman who sees a pathway out of poverty and matters of dignity underline the chess tournaments and put a little more at stake. It’s also a feminist piece as the movie identifies ways in which women’s life options in Katwe are limited and chess provides new opportunities. This is integrated organically into the narrative. Queen of Katwe takes its success story in a step further than most sports films. Phiona Mutesi’s success creates new problems as she is dissatisfied with returning to life in the slum and that causes tension within the family which adds depth and complexity to the film.

What Doesn’t: Queen of Katwe runs a little over two hours and the movie feels its length. That’s due to the start-and-stop nature of the story. The story is episodically structured. Conflicts are established and quickly resolved and the story moves on to another—usually unrelated—conflict. As a result, the story lacks narrative momentum. It doesn’t come to a climax so much as it just runs out of conflicts. The chess action isn’t staged or filmed especially well. Most of these sequences consist of the same images from different angles in which the players move their pieces across the board and grimace at a bad move or rejoice in a good one but the action itself doesn’t mean much to the viewer. Superior sports dramas convey the experience of being a player and the struggles that are unique to that activity. Queen of Katwe doesn’t present the chess action in a way that is especially cinematic. One distracting choice of Queen of Katwe is the casting of Lupita Nyong’o as Phiona Mutesi’s mother. Nyong’o is a fine actress and she does a good job in the role but she is too young for the part. On screen she looks virtually the same age as the actresses playing her daughters. Given the background and the living conditions of the character, the role calls for an actress with more age and weariness than Nyong’o possesses. 

Bottom Line: Queen of Katwe is a well-made crowd pleaser. The film works through the Disney sports formula while managing to inject some new elements into it. While this isn’t an especially hard hitting story it accomplishes what it sets out to do and does it well.

Episode: #615 (October 9, 2016)