'Queen of Katwe' Review: Disney Provides Plenty of Heart and a Worthy Role for Lupita Nyong'o
By John Boone
Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures
"You're in for a treat, man."
The security guard working the gate at the Disney lot pops his gum as he glances at me over his Oakley shades. I'd become accustomed to a certain interaction during these check-ins -- usually composed solely of giving my name and my intentions on the lot ("I'm here for the Queen of Katwe screening.") -- so this divergence threw me. "Huh?" I ask. He hands over my pass, smiling, "You're going to like the movie."
Queen of Katwe is the true story of Phiona Mutesi, a Ugandan chess prodigy who overcame all odds to become a chess master, adapted from the ESPN biography, The Queen of Katwe: A Story of Life, Chess, and One Extraordinary Girl's Dream of Becoming a Grandmaster. If your eyes are currently glazing over at the mention of chess and grandmasters, let me just say: never have I ever seen a montage of people playing chess as heartwarming as in this film.
It's the type of movie that spells out the moral for you: "In chess, the small one can become the big one. That's why I like it," one Katwe girl explains to Phiona (newcomer Madina Nalwanga) after explaining how a pawn can become a queen. Spoiler alert: That's a metaphor for Phiona herself. It's the type of film that says, "Challenges are not a curse," and truly believes it. It's also a vibrant movie filled with panache, a story that will move you with its soaring highs and myriad heartbreaks and, despite all odds, never feels rote.
Queen of Katwe is not groundbreaking. It fits fairly squarely into two tried-and-true subgenres: The sports biopic, documenting the underdog's rise to become a champ, and the vaguer Netflix category of narratives about disadvantaged black teenagers who meet that one teacher who helps them see a life for themselves outside of their current predicament. (Your Freedom Writers, your Dangerous Minds.) As directed by Mira Nair (Monsoon Wedding), it manages to be more than that, though. It is a movie about women of color, directed by a woman of color. It's a movie about Africa, shot entirely in Africa with a cast comprised of African actors, including Nalwanga, Lupita Nyong'o and David Oyelowo, playing the aforementioned teacher. (No white savior in this narrative!) It's another feel-good family film to add to Disney's pantheon, albeit one that provides some much needed diversity without being about slaves or maids.
Another injustice righted by Queen of Katwe is providing an in-the-flesh role for Nyong'o, her first since winning the Best Supporting Actress Oscar in 2014 for 12 Years a Slave. In the interim, she's played Maz Kanata in Star Wars: The Force Awakens and Raksha in The Jungle Book -- huge blockbusters, to be sure, but both were motion capture performances that showcased her voice at the expense of everything else she has to offer. For comparison's sake, Anne Hathaway, who won the same award the year prior for Les Misérables, appeared in Interstellar, The Intern and Alice Through the Looking Glass before Nyong'o was actually seen onscreen again.
And Nyong'o, playing Phiona's mother, Nakku Harriet, is dynamic as ever onscreen. In one early scene, she haggles for day-old produce and bemoans the vendor, "You should give me them for free." To which the caddish man replies, "I will when you give me something for free." Nyong'o's Nakku spits on the ground in front of him. "There. No charge." Her performance is subtle in its complexities. She crafts a character that is filled with pride and shame, love and regret, both bitter and tender. It is a role that will hopefully return her to the Best Supporting Actress race. (Oyelowo is also plenty charming in the movie and could earn Academy attention for it.) Even so, Nyongo's presence is just one highlight in an altogether bright film.
And if you're so inclined to see Queen of Katwe this weekend, I say to you: You're in for a treat, man.