Queen of Katwe’s very first scene takes place at the chronological end of the story. Ugandan chess prodigy Phiona Mutsei (Madina Nalwanga) has made it to the final of the national championships, and we first meet this character as she steps out onto the court with her coach Robert Katende (David Oyelowo). Yet, this starting at the end doesn’t serve as any kind of spoiler, as it might do in a film of another genre. Queen of Katwe is a Disney-backed underdog sports story based on an inspiring true-life tale, and the idea that the film will end anywhere other than a climactic and uplifting showdown is patently absurd.
When we return to the national championships as the conclusion approaches, there is of course an additional sense of triumph to the occasion. Phiona has overcome countless obstacles brought about by poverty and indifference. Seeing the change from her shy and much-mocked joining of the local Katwe chess club in 2007 to her confident walk to her final challenge in 2011 is genuinely grin-inducing, and the overall predictability and sometimes shaky writing of the whole film stop seeming so important for a few jubilant minutes. It might not quite make chess as cinematically exciting as the more oft-filmed sports of boxing, basketball etc, but it does undoubtedly bring an extra layer of cool to a commonly dismissed-as-nerdy pastime.
Queen of Katwe arguably marks director Mira Nair’s highest-profile film yet, backed by Disney and with Oyelowo and Luptia Nyong’o on the cast list. She’s clearly embraced the extra budgetary freedoms that come with such status, with kinetic scenes featuring plenty of extras and some comic-booky visual flourishes. Whilst said flourishes don’t work particularly well, jarring with the more realistic tone on display elsewhere, they are evidence of experimentation that succeeds elsewhere in the film when deployed more subtly.
Newcomer Nalwanga puts in a solid performance as Phiona, a difficult role as it covers the transformative years between turning 14 and turning 18. Malwanga manages to convince no matter the age she’s being required to play, though she struggles with an underwhelmingly written 16-year-old rebellion phase that doesn’t feel adequately integrated with the rest of the story. Despite that misstep, it’s a lot of fun to watch Nalwanga play the changing relationships between Mutesi and the other members of her community as she transitions from neglected poverty to immense local and even national fame as she brings trophy after trophy back to Katwe.
Phiona, brought to Robert Katende’s chess class by the promise of free porridge, swiftly proved to be an exceptional player, able to instinctively read the game at near-master levels. Despite grinding poverty and some well-meaning disapproval from her life-hardened mother Harriet (Nyong’o), Phiona rose meteorically through the national and international chess hierarchy, bringing the rest of her club along on her coattails. Her classmates are a very charming bunch, especially the tiny Benjamin (Ethan Nazario Lubega), the reigning champion of Katwe before Phiona, whose small stature makes his beating of tall, rich city kids all the more enjoyable to watch. The happiness of the victorious Pioneers (as Katende dubs his team) is infectious, which makes rooting for them incredibly easy.
Nyong’o has the toughest role as Harriet, whose tired cynicism seems to be getting in the way of a plot that we know is destined to advance anyway. But depth is added to her character as the story progresses, and as we learn more about her reluctance to let Phiona take on the world, her point of view becomes more defensible and understandable. Of course, this is helped by the fact that Nyong’o is one of the most exciting actors working today, and seeing her in her first major live action role since her 12 Years a Slave debut is a thrill of its own.
Oyelowo is as hugely charming as you’d think he’d be as a man who constantly risks his financial security to improve the lives of profoundly underprivileged children. Very confident in his own ability to inspire without ever coming across as arrogant, Katende plausibly makes chess sound like an awesome hobby, and much of this comes down to Oyelowo’s charisma. His chemistry with the kids is easy and natural, vital in a role that requires a believable element of paternal care, and any film with Oyelowo and Nyong’o on screen together is guaranteed to have some acting fireworks.
William Wheeler’s script is not as good as the performers who deliver it, however, especially in the first third. It struggles to settle into a rhythm, dropping in too much exposition peppered with jokes that don’t quite land. Once all the kids are together and galavanting around Uganda and, later, the rest of Africa under the guidance of Katende, things pick up considerably in terms of both pacing and dialogue. Wheeler and Nair even manage one moment of proper shock that had the whole cinema gasping, setting off a very powerful sequence that stands head and shoulders above the rest of the film.
Despite there being plenty of issues, Queen of Katwe is still a heartwarming, if completely conventional, look at overcoming seemingly insurmountable odds. There’s a great cast, including the fantastic ensemble of children and, importantly, Nair shows us an Africa that we rarely get to see on screen. Contemporary, and with urban/rural and class divides that outsiders’ looks at the continent generally ignore in favour of looking at a homogenous tribal mass, it’s an important and all-too rare insight that makes Queen of Katwe a worthy way to spend two hours.