Movies about chess as a vehicle for social mobility and self-discovery seem to be becoming a sub-genre into themselves. The 2012 doc Brooklyn Castle follows “the chess team at a below-the-poverty-line inner city junior high.” Earlier this year came the domestic release of The Dark Horse, in which “A brilliant but troubled New Zealand chess champion finds purpose by teaching underprivileged children about the rules of chess and life.” Now comes Queen of Katwe, based on the true story of Ugandan chess prodigy Phiona Mutesi.
The film covers Mutesi’s 2007 to 2012 trajectory from illiterate slum-dweller to a precedent-setting chess champion able to offer her family a better life. As Mutesi, new discovery Madina Nalwanga capably projects a sharpness of mind, a centeredness, and a strong will to succeed. Once can-do chess coach Robert Katende (David Oyelowo, Selma’s MLK) teaches her she can do, nine-year-old Mutesi applies a strong work ethic to the game, but along with lending her newfound confidence, wins threaten her perspective and drive a wedge between herself and her fiercely determined single mother (Oscar winner Lupita Nyong’o).
A co-production of Disney and ESPN Films, Queen of Katwe unsurprisingly has a calculated quality to it, a certain brand of stylistic polish. Disney has found success with the sports film (Remember the Titans, Miracle, The Rookie), and the new film plays many of the corny notes we’ve come to expect. Still, Queen of Katwe is something of an outlier as a mid-range-budgeted drama with an all-black cast and a respected filmmaker behind the camera.
Mira Nair (Monsoon Wedding, Salaam Bombay!) began by making documentaries, then moved into narrative films, often featuring first-time actors for authenticity. Queen of Katwe capitalizes on Nair’s experience (including her familiarity with Uganda through her 1991 film Mississippi Masala), as well as her optimistic tendencies, to put forward a story of sports as education and salvation, with plenty of Ugandan local color. If the slums look just a bit more colorful and clean than in real life, chalk it up to the film’s ambition to be essentially honest without traumatizing its family audience.
That said, it’s fair to say that Queen of Katwe is the first of the Disney sports films to deal frankly (although tastefully) with prostitution, a constantly available source of income to the desperate in Katwe, a district of Kampala. A more benign temptation is the food the volunteer chess coach uses to entice children to join his learning environment (the children, chosen for their great character faces, make for an appealing set of Bad News Bears, chess style). “Follow your plans,” he tells them, “And you will all find safe squares.” The sports action comes in a series of tournaments, including one in (culture shock!) wintry Russia, but even anxious violin ostinatos can’t make them very exciting.
What’s thrilling is the story’s girl power, with Phiona described as an aggressive player of “astonishing power.” That and the inspirational moral “Sometimes the place you are used to is not the place you belong” are messages that girls and boys alike should hear.