Queen of Katwe is a step-up from the standard Disney sports fare

DISCLAIMER: I worked a paying job to interview and write a profile on the lead producers of this film and saw it in a press screening in that capacity. No other perks or payments except for those compensations necessary and promised for my writing work were received, and I was given no instruction as to what I could or couldn’t say about the film.

ALSO DISCLAIMER: The summary of the film is the one that I wrote for the piece. I hate writing summaries.

The sports film is Disney’s oddest duck in its vast, slowly encroaching domination of Hollywood. It’s the one point where Disney feels earnestly stuck deeply in the past, both in the filmmaking on display and the ideas that it has. It’s likely still the biggest purveyor in Hollywood of “White dude helps out downtrodden people of color” pictures (see: Million Dollar Arm, McFarland, USA), and it’s the only time I know I might just full-on doze off despite the Disney logo coming up beforehand.

So, Queen of Katwe approaches the picture from a different angle, and while I don’t think the house style has necessarily become more interesting, director Mira Nair has at least made major strides with this one towards improving the margins of these films, making something that feels unique and lively, a feel-good picture that feels like it’s organically giving you something to feel good about.

This film is the true story of Phiona Mutsei (Madina Nalwanga), a young Ugandan girl raised in the slums of Katwe by her mother Nakku Harriet (Lupita Nyong’o). Phiona has a
fateful crossing of paths with Robert Katende (David Oyelowo), an engineer by training and a church youth counselor by profession. Katende is teaching the children of Katwe to play chess, in the hopes of expanding their possibilities. Phiona quickly proves to be a natural and begins to rocket towards international attention, which forces her to confront her own perceptions of the limits of her world.

From a surface-level perspective, it’s a major studio picture set entirely in Africa and made with almost entirely local actors (minus Nyong’o and Oyelowo). That’s a bold enough move on its own and it really pays off in the film itself. The slums of Katwe feel alive as much as they feel confining. Actual Ugandan pop fills the soundtrack that our characters dance to. It’s a look into a culture we never see and the sort of place that never gets the chance to be colorful or have its own character on film. On that level alone, Queen of Katwe is admirable for being a wide-release coming from a different place.

But digging under a bit, it’s how that different place infuses the same basic story we see. When we break it down, Queen of Katwe is a remarkably standard “young person becomes good at a sport” picture, even if it is about chess. Katende is the older guy who knows what he’s doing and notices the talent of the young person. They train, the younger person slowly gets better, there’s some tragedies and setbacks, and everyone emerges at the end successful and better people for the experience. There’s not a lot of surprises.

It’s rather that the different place and the different perspectives inform the ways the details ultimately fill out the story being told. The little signal shared between our kids, the class dynamics at play. Hell, the fact that it’s willing to let Phiona play the stubborn, won’t back down kid when she gets into a fight with a young boy who insults her for the signals of her incredibly poor status.

Narratively, it’s nothing we haven’t seen before, and even a little long-in-the-tooth unfortunately (there is no world in which this needed to be two hours). There’s a few standard setbacks that go on too long, especially a flood scene that feels tragic, but hard to understand as a choice beyond “This actually happened,” which is the tricky game biopics have to play, justifying real life events with narrative and thematic rules. There’s also a subplot with Phiona’s sister that never seems to quite connect with the rest of the film, a pop-in that seems to go against thematics of learning to excel in your potential, rather than reinforcing them.

It’s just the unfortunate nature of the beast. Nair does a great job adding in marginal details and infusing life, but the genre and the demands of studio work holds her back from really exploring the potential. This is still a vitally important idea and work. Hell, what other studio picture on this scale has a legitimately all-black cast?

And a great one at that. The kids feel authentic enough, if hovering close at times to being capital A-actor children, minus Nalwanga who’s a legitimately strong lead. Nyong’o reminds us why she has an Oscar (given how much time she’s spent under motion capture as of late), turning in a low-key powerful performance as Phiona’s mother, all quiet moments of alternating release and holding back for her children’s sake. Oyelowo reminds us why he should have an Oscar, exuding moral authority and warm masculine likeability. If Oyelowo isn’t being set up as the next Tom Hanks, I’m not entirely sure I understand this business.

Queen of Katwe is an admirable attempt at being something more than your standard Disney sports picture. The good news is that it largely hits that mark. A warm, feel-good picture that knows how to use its details to feel like something brand new, even if its expectations hold it back at times.

Grade: B+