Is Queen of Katwe so refreshing because it’s necessary, or so necessary because it’s refreshing? Perhaps that’s an odd sidebar observation for a film that is ostensibly designed to sweep viewers away on a narrative journey. And sweep it does, very effectively, its crowd-pleasing rhythms so catchy it almost makes the chess-ignorant viewer (hi there) feel like they understand the on-screen action. Yet, the film’s thematic undercurrent is more precise, and more general, than a quasi-competition movie. In terms of precision, here is a film set in a remote Ugandan village, focusing on a young woman of color whose curiosity reveals remarkable skill, and whose remarkable skill must be met with indomitable mental resolve in order to achieve the kind of success that could change her family’s life. Quite refreshing. More generally, this is a film about turning aspirations into practical reality, refusing to be stymied by the brick wall of the status quo, finding a way to break free from seemingly impossible constraints. It’s a chess game with societal suppression, and especially in the specific context of a young African girl, that’s absolutely necessary.
Even better, it’s a true story! This tale is not just a cinema-centric hypothetical coated in emotional syrup. It happened. It’s real. So now no one has any excuses for yielding to regressive forces…and Hollywood has no excuses for glossing over stories like this.
In the small Ugandan village of Katwe, Phiona Mutesi (newcomer Madina Nalwanga, flawless) struggles to stand out even within her own family. Stuck in the middle – literally – between a rebellious older sister and needy younger brother, she’s relied upon by her single mother (Lupita Nyong’o) to help provide for the family. Her maturity is hastened, yet her youthful curiosity lingers, so much so that she wanders off to observe a rowdy youth group led by Robert Katende (David Oyelowo), who is training the kids in the fundamentals of chess. Katende is a former athlete who has dedicated his adult life to helping Ugandan kids improve the welfare of their lives – basically a secular saint. In Phiona he sees uncommon promise – she sees the game in ways few others can. And so begins a journey in which this unassuming young girl learns to use her mind in order to forge her own path – solid advice for a game a chess, but even better advice for taking on an uncompromising world.
Such is the key thematic thrust of Queen of Katwe – chess is part of its narrative, but is also a symbol for breaking free from societal constraints and realizing the endless possibilities of human potential. It was a pretty fabulous get by ESPN magazine writer Tim Crothers to track down this story, which is sports-adjacent, to be sure, but its true power lies in its deeper humanity. Director Mira Nair and screenwriter William Wheeler mine that humanity in ways both breezy and powerful, crafting a tale that both sheds light on a way of life but is also a nimble crowd-pleaser. It’s a tough tightrope to walk, one that occasionally gets lost in weeds of its own making, since there are so many implications within this real-life story, from poverty to social structure to gender dynamics to regressive politics within Africa and beyond. The depth of Nair’s ambition has historically been both a blessing and curse, and here the density of thematic threads do occasionally get tangled up in one another.
Nevertheless, here is a powerful true story, painted in vibrant strokes, about very specific people that the world needs to see, daring to reach for goals everyone should and can so intimately identify with. There really is no limit to what we can accomplish, and that statement is no less applicable to a 10-year-old girl from Uganda than it is to some rich white boy from Beverly Hills. Queen of Katwe shows us that. How refreshing and how necessary.