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--- (left) David Oyelowo is Robert Katende and Madina Nalwanga is Phiona Mutesi in Disney's Queen Of Katwe, directed by Mira Nair, the vibrant true story of a young girl from the streets of rural Uganda whose world rapidly changes when she is introduced to the game of chess. (right) Lupita Nyong'o and Madina Nalwanga star in Queen Of Katwe. Photos credit: Edward Echwalu (c) 2016 Disney Enterprises Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Triumphant celebration of the mind of a real girl in Africa, with the help of Pollyanna

By Nora Lee Mandel

Directed by Mira Nair
Produced by Lydia Dean Pilcher and John B. Carls
Written by William Wheeler, inspired by the ESPN Magazine article and book by Tim Crothers
Released by Disney
South Africa/USA. 2 hrs. 4 mins. Rated PG
With David Oyelowo, Lupita Nyong’o, Madina Nalwanga, Martin Kabanza, Taryn Kyaze, Nikita Waligwa, Ethan Nazario Lubega

Queen of Katwe is a triumphant celebration of the mind of a person in a place the world usually does not credit for intellectual mastery. The real person is a girl, the place is in East Africa, and her brain vaults a test that every colonialist would have admired – the game of chess.

The ten year old girl is Phiona Mutesi (a fierce Madina Nalwanga), who doesn’t know how to spell her name or her exact age because she’s had little schooling as her family struggles to stay alive in the slum called Katwe in Uganda’s capital city, Kampala. Her dedicated, deeply religious mother Nakku Harriet (Lupita Nyong’o, of 12 Years A Slave) is desperate to keep her surviving children even alive, since the deaths of her husband and a daughter. While her oldest daughter Night (Taryn “Kay” Kyaze) is already tempted by sugar daddies on motorcycles, she needs Phiona and her brother Brian (Martin Kabanza) to haul water and hawk boiled maize amidst the crowds of vendors selling everything possible. They are forced to keep moving when the landladies demand rent for tiny off-the-grid shacks that frequently flood.

Director Mira Nair thrusts the audience right in with the family into this vibrant, colorful crowd, vividly filmed on location by cinematographer Sean Bobbitt. Nair is usually associated with her native India, especially since her 2002 hit Monsoon Wedding, but she has lived half-time for 27 years in Kampala, where her husband grew up and teaches (and where she runs the Maisha Film Lab that Nyong’o attended). Like Phiona, she has to awkwardly balance these overwhelming sounds and images of deprivation with the discovery of the power of silent thinking.

Phiona’s brother is first boyishly distracted from their woes by a make-shift soccer game, but she becomes too aggressive to play on a team sport that follows rules. When the affable coach Robert Katende (David Oyelowo, of Selma) leads boys and girls into a rickety oasis for a bowl of porridge and where they sit, stare, and tease each other over pieces of cardboard, Phiona follows cautiously. She is really curious to watch more closely, but they all complain she smells too bad, so she goes right home and uses that precious water to wash up.

How unusual on any continent that an organization called Sports Outreach Ministry (SOM) would include the game of chess as a sport, too. Even more unusual in a film set in Africa that doesn’t more credit the founding white leaders, as the book by Tim Crothers does, but the chess “Pioneers” team was first Katende’s addition. The locals are suspicious of white do-gooders, derisively calling them mzungu. Harriet is too: the game sounds like gambling and the afternoons playing chess take them away from making the family’s necessary income.

As believable as Nyong’o makes the mother’s anguish (and strength), in a role written for her, among the best scenes are Phiona’s early chess lessons. Katende, from a poverty-stricken childhood like his charges, was pretty much self-taught in chess, and he promulgates a kind of street chess that recalls the style of Laurence Fishburne’s park hustler in Steven Zaillian’s Searching for Bobby Fischer (1993). But as a gifted mentor, Katende, even while he keeps assuring his wife that he is just waiting for an engineering job worthy of his hard-to-obtain university degree, has each child pass on their learning and skills, as the girls play the girls, and the boys play the boys.

Most charming is the small girl Gloria (Nikita Waligwa). Her description of the functions of each chess piece, especially how the queen is the most powerful piece on the board, had me understanding the game for the first time. She tutors Phiona on the potentials of each piece one at a time, with metaphorical comparisons to what their role would be in Ugandan culture. I would have liked more of that teaching, as Phiona quickly absorbs those lessons and moves on to play boys and even reduce them to shocked tears. Keys to her winning strategies are apparently her aggressiveness, her intense concentration where every losing move becomes a learning opportunity, and her ability to plan many steps ahead, which she links to her survival strategies in Katwe. Mostly her style is just described as “instinctual” play, that too many times means staring at the board, eschewing animation or magic realism to show what’s going on in her head during a game.

Like some of the best sports movies, their team is the underdog, undersupplied poor kids going up against the private school snobs. It’s not race, but class, and the SOM team members weren’t even attending a school. Katende’s machinations to argue rules and raise money for competition entrance fees change the pace and open up the film, including his temping in soccer leagues, like he did to pay for college. (He really was a soccer star on top of his other talents.) The wide-eyed kids’ travel to a luxurious boarding school on the other end of Kampala has more visual impact than Phiona’s later travels.

Because win she does, then a loss or two, but then win and win. Through junior, women’s, inter-African competitions, and an Olympiad in Russia, Phiona wins a lot, and brings home trophies to great local acclaim. (The subtitle of Crothers’s book is A Story of Life, Chess, and One Extraordinary Girl's Dream of Becoming a Grandmaster.) But the story gets stretched a bit. Phiona starts hearing from the sophisticated young women in their late teens and twenties, who she plays across from when she’s still 12 – 14, that there are openings, gambits, and closings to be learned. Katende lends her his only chess book – but on the screen this looks like the time when she was still barely literate and hardly attending school. Sure, Nair makes it look inspiring for her to gather drops of fuel to light a lantern to read by late at night (a la Abraham Lincoln), but not credible.

The blending of Phiona’s touted instincts (when Alex Heffes’s score marvelously uses traditional Ugandan instruments and African rhythms) and this more formal education (classical orchestra sounds at the competitions) is too vaguely attributed to her ability to learn from each loss, yet her experiences actually didn’t go that smoothly. William Wheeler’s script assiduously avoids more chess specifics, unfortunately, in favor of Oprah-style confidence-building cheerleading, like when Katende shouts from the sidelines “You belong here!” The pacing gets repetitively edited: Phiona faces challenges at home, in her training, to get to or during a competition, and Katende miraculously leaps to a solution. (Albeit Oyelowo is an energetic Pollyanna – another Disney reference -- and we’re spared most of the Christian preaching). Similarly, Disney, as usual, is promoting the power ballad “Back to Life” by Alicia Keyes, but the sure shot for Oscar song nominee should be the catchy “#1 Spice” by Young Cardamom & HAB, buttressed by the music video with the closing credits.

While far too many articles and reviews tout Phiona as a “grandmaster”, she was given the Woman Candidate Master ranking by the World Chess Federation by an ambiguous rule after a few more international competitions, but, heck, she’s still in high school. The real Phiona, her family, and her coach are remarkable enough without any exaggeration. With each one posing in the closing next to each actor along with an update on their achievements, Phiona’s example is exciting to the girls she tutors in the expansion of the chess team to more slum locations and more girls wanting to follow. Hopefully, there may be enough chess here to intrigue more wherever Disney films are shown.

NB: This review is in fulfillment of Disney’s requirement that I post a review in order to be kept on their invitation list for press screenings.

September 24, 2016

Nora Lee Mandel is a member of New York Film Critics Online and the Alliance of Women Film Journalists. Her reviews are counted in the Rotten Tomatoes TomatoMeter:
Complete Index to Nora Lee Mandel's Movie Reviews

Since August 2006, edited versions of most of my reviews of documentaries/indie/foreign films are at Film-Forward; since 2012, festival overviews at FilmFestivalTraveler; and, since 2016, coverage of women-made films at FF2 Media. Shorter versions of my older reviews are at IMDb's comments, where non-English-language films are listed by their native titles.

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