Family Movie Review: Queen of Katwe (PG)

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MPAA Rating: PG        Length: 124 minutes

Age Appropriate For: 10+. The film is about a young Ugandan girl who discovers a passion and extreme talent for chess, and attempts to develop her skills while navigating her family life and representing her town. Discussions about a war in Uganda that left children orphaned and involved in violence; our protagonist’s father has recently passed away, leaving the family in poverty; conversations about “sugar daddies” and some sexually themed language and jokes; a teenage girl becomes pregnant; married people kiss on a bed; some bullying; a child is hit by a motorcycle and taken to the hospital, where his wounds are stitched without anesthetic; another child almost drowns; and a few mentions of Christian faith.

‘Queen of Katwe’ is an unlikely sports release from Disney, with its focus on chess and a Ugandan female prodigy. But this kind of inclusion is a good thing, and ‘Queen of Katwe’ is a great film.

By Roxana Hadadi

QueenOfKatwe ChesapeakeFamilyMovieReviewMovies about board games don’t really have a good track record (remember “Battleship”?), but to call the excellent “Queen of Katwe” only a “chess movie” would be short-changing it.

But it would also be limiting to call it only a coming-of-age film, or only an African film, or even only a family-friendly Disney film. It’s the combination of all these elements, executed with such grace and feeling by director Mira Nair and cast members Lupita Nyong’o, David Oyelowo, and Madina Nalwanga, that gives “Queen of Katwe” its power.

Because, yes, it is powerful -- not only because of its representation (set mostly in Africa, with a black and African cast) but because of the kind of confidence, strength, and fortitude “Queen of Katwe” gives its characters. Part of this is, surely, because there are in reality a young woman named Phiona Mutesi, her widowed mother Nakku Harriet, and her chess coach Robert Katende -- all of whom actually lived these experiences -- but movies are “based on a true story” all the time and fail to create for their audiences much feeling at all.

“Queen of Katwe,” though, is different, not just because of the story itself but because of how the story is told: how Nair gives vibrancy and texture to the town of Katwe and its inhabitants, and how screenwriter William Wheeler transforms the true story told in the 2012 nonfiction book “The Queen of Katwe: A Story of Life, Chess, and One Extraordinary Girl's Dream of Becoming a Grandmaster” by Tim Crothers into a moving, emotive script. Things aren’t always easy, but life is meant for living, with the good and the bad. “Queen of Katwe” has the bravery to provide that lesson, and it presents it beautifully.

The film focuses on five years in the life of Phiona (Nalwanga), from 2007, when she is introduced to the game of chess, to 2012, when she is playing in a major tournament. In 2007, Phiona’s life in Katwe, Uganda, is difficult, but relatively uncomplicated: Unable to read and not in school, the tween helps her widowed mother, Nakku (Nyong’o, of “The Jungle Book”), by selling maize so her siblings can survive. But when she notices that one of her brothers has been receiving a cup of porridge each day at a chess club practice, she shows up too, and forms an instant bond with coach Robert (Oyelowo, of “Captive”) when he protects her from bullies.

She keeps his attention, too, when she turns out to be quite good at chess, beating the group’s reigning champion and gaining their respect. Phiona works hard at it -- each night, she practices with her brother, memorizing certain moves -- but Nakku doesn’t understand what all the fuss is about.

Yet when Phiona’s success starts opening her up to other experiences, like traveling to Sudan for a competition and talk of becoming a master player, Nakku realizes that the life Phiona currently has may not be the one she wants. “Too superior, are we?” she asks Phiona, and later on she blames Robert for making Phiona a girl who will end up like a “ghost who cannot rest,” simultaneously within her community and without. Whether Phiona succeeds or fails, either outcome will have an undeniable effect -- and as Robert tells his best student, “Sometimes the place you are used to is not the place you belong.”

“Queen of Katwe” makes so many good choices that it is difficult to list them all, but what is essential is the film’s five-year focus, allowing us to understand the girl Phiona is before we see how she grows into the young woman whose story is so extraordinary. You won’t be able to keep your eyes off Nalwanga; the first-timer’s natural talent is infectious, and you’ll hold her close to your heart. Nyong’o is fiercer than we’ve ever seen her as a mother struggling to hold her family together, and she does an amazing job transmitting the mixture of fear, pride, and self-sacrifice that Nakku feels as she watches Phiona progress. And Oyelowo continues his string of empathetic performances with his turn as Robert, a man who remembers his own broken childhood and will do everything he can, even harm his own body or alter his professional goals, for the youngsters in his care.

None of this would work, though, if Nair didn’t pay attention to the small details: to the layout of Katwe, the motorcycle paths in its streets and the fishermen working its shores; to how Phiona repeats chess moves back to herself, like a prayer, before sleeping on the floor in her family’s shack; or to the class dynamics between Nakku and the other women in Katwe, or between the children of Katwe and the wealthier, elitist private school students against whom they compete. Practically every angle of life in Katwe is explored, and the film balances it well with the game play of chess, too.

There are flaws to “Queen of Katwe” -- it’s a little too long, and there’s a climactic moment near the end that is handled in a way that is quite stereotypically Disney -- but they’re infrequent and almost negligible. “Queen of Katwe” is remarkable in its characters, its narrative, and its world-building, an example of unexpected storytelling that transcends its sports origins into a film that is emotionally revelatory and ultimately unforgettable.

Interested in a previously released film? Read our reviews of films already showing in your local theater.

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