Walt Disney Pictures in association of ESPN Films brings the motivational true story tale of a young Uganda girl who must overcome the everyday struggles she faces in her home town of Katwe in order to bring a sense of pride back to her entire country. Based on the book by Tim Crothers, director Mira Nair has achieved creating a colorful, uplifting film that whilst filled with cliches is also a joyous heartfelt journey that will having you falling in love with the entire cast. QUEEN OF KATWE takes on the harsh living situations of Uganda and shows the love within the families of these poverty-stricken homes. While the film at face value is just another inspiring underdog tale we have all seen countless times before, the root of story is based around escaping a life destined for hardship by persevering endlessly finding strength and confidence to take on any obstacle the world throws at you. With great performances by newcomers to well-decorated actors, Queen of Katwe is a captivating story suited for all ages. This film may be based around chess, but somehow remains engaging till the end even though the formulaic structure keeps things predictable.
Life for 10-year-old Phiona Mutesi (Nalwanga) and her brother, sister and mother, Harriet (Nyong’o), has grown troublesome living in the slums of Katwe in Kampala, Uganda. Harriet’s single-parent lifestyle has proven difficult for the family as they work tirelessness in the streets and market just to ensure a roof is over their heads. It’s when Phiona stumbles upon a local classroom filled with other poor youth learning to play chess from soccer player turned missionary Robert Katende (Oyelowo) when her and her families life starts to change forever. Robert teaches these children a game of concentration and strategic thinking, which helps these kids gain valuable skills that can be applied to everyday Ugandan life.
Struggling to get her mothers permission or find the confidence in herself to go up against the ranks of ivy league type players, Phiona finds her perseverance to keep moving forward. With Phiona’s natural ability to see many moves ahead of her competitors, she continues to surprise her peers with skills soon capturing the spirits of village. Breaking away from the rest of her family, her mother grows concerned she will lose her being in her life, but her mentor Robert is there to open her mothers eyes to the newly tapped potential Phiona could bring to her family.
Queen of Katwe faces some hard imagery for a family-friendly Disney inspirational “sports” flick. Many scenes show a sample of the disgustingness and truly horrendous living situations found in the slums of Uganda, however definitely shy’s away from some of the more tragic events of late. That being said, Mira Nair was still able to capture the soul of village and the sense of community the people have with one another. These intimate scenes between family and friends help remind us that monetary possessions and nice things is not what can make life great, but it’s the love of family and supportive people around you that keep you going. The movie is able to accomplish this without telling us, rather just by the interactions between the great cast of characters.
A large cast of unique characters with a sense of realness makes this a believable tale, even though probably entirely sensationalized, the film is grounded by introducing the real people during the credit roll. While moments are probably concocted for the story, much of the film feels genuine and free from overwritten dialogue in part due to encompassing the culture and small habits that differ from western culture.
Nalwanga, Oyelowo, and Nyong’o along with the rest of the brilliant young actors contain such emotion in every scene helping bring a simple story about chess into a riveting, engaging story. Much of the action takes place at the chess board, which normally wouldn’t be filled with such mesmerizing scenes, however Nalwanga and the other children express so much emotion within their faces that you’ll find your own head hurting from so much concentration.
This small-town coming of age triumph of perseverance and courage is by far the most well-put together family friendly inspirational movie I have seen in years. As it’s a Disney film battling a difficult sub-theme, director Mira Nair and writer William Wheeler have been able to bring together a wonderfully crafted film and solid narrative while still using a well-tested formula. Queen of Katwe isn’t a film that will be remembered forever, but will surprisingly resonate with you for awhile hopefully resonating in our youth for even longer.
Queen of Katwe opens in limited release September 23rd with possibly a wider release to follow shortly after.