In many ways, “Queen of Katwe” is a typical underdog sports story, with an unlikely champion triumphing against personal odds and fierce rivals. But in this one, the hero is a teenage girl from Uganda, and the playing field is a chess board. Those differences mean everything.
First of all, this is an unequivocally African film, set and filmed in the Katwe slums of Kampala. “Queen of Katwe” immerses viewers right away — there is no Western character to act as an audience surrogate and not a single White Savior to be found anywhere. The focus is entirely on the true story of Phiona Mutesi (Madina Nalwanga) and the tough, vibrant, chaotic community she calls home.
Indian director Mira Nair’s first feature, “Salaam Bombay!,” dealt with street children in her home country, and she has lived in Uganda for several years. Her eye for authenticity never wanders, as the camera follows Phiona through her days of fetching water and selling maize to help support her widowed mother, Harriet (Lupita Nyong’o of “12 Years a Slave”), and three siblings. When she discovers a chess club run by a local Christian ministry, Phiona shows an astonishing aptitude for the game, leading coach Robert Katende (David Oyelowo of “Selma”) to encourage dreams of national — even international — competition.
This is where “Queen of Katwe” sets itself apart again. Chess isn’t the most cinematic of pastimes, yet Nair finds ways to make each match as exciting as any soccer or basketball game. The boards are often filmed in close-up, as if the pieces were actually doing battle, and the snap of the game clocks gives the scenes a rhythm that builds tension without having to leave the table.
Newcomer Nalwanga has the quiet, steady intelligence of someone who can work out a winning strategy in her head but isn’t sure how to apply those skills to her life’s many challenges. She embodies the metaphor of chess as a game for intellectual warriors, and it’s refreshing to see a film so unabashedly celebrate being smart.
The cast’s two recognizable actors don’t overwhelm their inexperienced co-stars, although they stand out naturally anyway. Oyelowo is inspiring without wearing a halo, showing Robert’s doubts and fears as well as his sense of humor and real faith in the children he mentors. Nyong’o has the charisma of a full-blown movie star and the talent to dial it back to a thoughtful, restrained performance.
As “Queen of Katwe” hits its story beats, you may find yourself anticipating every move the way Phiona does with her opponents —it is a Disney production, after all. Nair seems to expect this, and closes the film with footage of the actors standing with their real-life counterparts. The affection and respect displayed here cut through any Hollywood tropes, offering the kind of inspiration that could never be faked on a sound stage.
Read more of freelancer Loey Lockerby’s reviews at suchacritic.com.
‘Queen of Katwe’
Rated PG. Time: 2:04.