Movie Review: Queen of Katwe

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A girl from the slums of Uganda chases her dream of becoming a chess master.

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Mira Nair, 2016

Young Phiona (Madina Nalwanga) lives in a small house in Katwe, Uganda with her family. Her protective mother Harriet (Lupita Nyong’o) watches over her family fiercely, getting Phiona and her siblings to sell maize in order to make enough money to keep them all alive. One day the curious Phiona follows her brother to a building where Robert Katende (David Oyelowo) teaches local children chess. Entranced by the game, Phiona works hard, impressing Robert with her dedication and her natural ability. Robert works hard to give the kids more chances in life through chess, eventually booking them tournaments, where Phiona ascends quickly, winning against much richer children. The contradiction between her chess success and her home life begin to upset Phiona and threaten to tear her family apart.

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There’s something about the combination of an avant garde filmmaker like Mira Nair with the traditional, bubbly leanings of Disney that doesn’t quite work in Queen of Katwe. It’s an awkward marriage, the film’s darker moments not quite adding up with the bright tone. The decision to use rapid editing and handheld cameras also doesn’t quite jive with the by-the-numbers feel-good storytelling. It’s a shame, because when Queen of Katwe is good, it’s really good. A few of the triumphant moments work nicely, and the cast of children around Phiona are full of personality. It’s easy to warm to them, and to David Oyelowo’s determined, kind teacher as he inspires them. However, the movie tends to be at its best when focused on Phiona and her family’s dynamics, rather than the Disneyfied chess storyline. Harriet’s struggles to keep herself and her four children safe and fed are affecting and hard to watch at times; one particularly effective sequence sees the family kicked out of their home. The strength of Lupita Nyong’o’s fierce, angry performance shines through the entire film; whenever we spend too long without her, we miss her presence.

Movies like this live and die on the lead kids, and unfortunately, Madina Nalwanga is just…okay as Phiona. She isn’t bad exactly, but she doesn’t engage the way I’d like her to. Fortunately, she has some solid support, particularly from the spectacular Lupita Nyong’o and David Oyelowo. The choice that the film makes not to recast the child actors over time is a strange one, making it hard to know how much time has passed and breaking the film’s suspension of disbelief; it’s the two adults who get us through that. The two of them shine in every scene. Every little choice they’re making conveys so much about the characters. There’s a scene where Harriet, in an attempt to secure a future for her daughter, meets with an old acquaintance in an attempt to sell him a dress. She flirts with him, struggling with her choices during every moment of the scene. Harriet’s strength of character and her stubbornness pervade throughout Nyong’o’s performance, and she plays the role with such dignity. When she gets to act opposite Oyelowo, the movie is on another level. There are so many complex issues facing the characters in this movie, and that dignity is all-important. They earn the movie’s inspirational ending with that dignity.

Queen of Katwe on IMDb

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