Disney’s Queen of Katwe has all the right moves for a checkmate (review)

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I’m a huge sucker for real-life stories portrayed in some form of media. Whether it’s a song, a book, a TV show, or especially a movie, I love finding a good journey of someone who overcame adversity to triumph, despite all the odds. Normally, these types of stories are tales of old, whether it’s the story of Jackie Robinson and his struggle with breaking color barriers in baseball during the 1940’s, or the uphill battle of Daniel “Rudy” Ruettiger and his dream of playing football for the University of Notre Dame. Not many films that contain a story taking place within the last decade tend to evoke the sense of emotion that is hoped for, but that is definitely not the case for Disney’s latest entry in their live-action repertoire, Queen of Katwe.

For 10-year-old Phiona Mutesi (Nalwanga) and her family, life in the impoverished slum of Katwe in Kampala, Uganda, is a constant struggle. Her mother, Harriet (Nyong’o), is fiercely determined to take care of her family and works tirelessly selling vegetables in the market to make sure her children are fed and have a roof over their heads. When Phiona meets Robert Katende (Oyelowo), a soccer player turned missionary who teaches local children chess, she is captivated. From there, it is a journey that all of them embark to bring Phiona closer to realizing her dream of becoming a Grandmaster chess player, no matter where she comes from.

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The film, although only taking place from the years 2009 to 2014, brings the true definition of what it means to be an underdog to the big screen. Yes, it’s a form of a story that we’ve seen many times before, but it still doesn’t take away, at all, the immensity of this story, nor its emotional evocation. The tale of Phiona Mutesi was first brought to light by EPSN writer Tim Crothers in his biographical novel, The Queen of Katwe: One Girl’s Triumphant Path to Becoming a Chess Champion, in 2013. In partnership with ESPN Films, Disney brought this tale of truly rising from the ashes to light, with acclaimed director, Mira Nair, at the helm.

Nair, whose accolades include a nomination for Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film in 1988 for her debut feature film, Salaam Bombay!. Nair was attached to this story well before Disney had even asked her to join, as she knew of the story and had chronicled Robert Katende’s efforts in Uganda, and his work with Phiona, in a documentary featured by the Tribeca Film Institute in 2014 called A Fork, A Spoon and A Knight. Nair’s trademark tends to focus on the family dynamic, and showing the importance of father and mother roles, and this is definitely apparent in Queen of Katwe.

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To say that the casting of this film is phenomenal is a gross understatement. The cast of this film couldn’t be more perfect, not only with Nyong’o, Nalwanga, and Oyelowo, but with the rest of the actors and actresses, as well. The only way to describe the feeling that you get when seeing this film is organic, as each scene is filled with believable characters in very real scenarios. The “ghetto” of Katwe, as stated in the film, has a tangible vibe to it, as opposed to films that are produced on sound stages or back-lots, and look very much so.

Madina Nalwanga is an exceptional casting choice, as even though this is her debut performance, she carries the mantle of someone experienced well beyond her years. Her ability to create performances that convey heavy non-dialogue emotion is outstanding, not to take away from her wonderful opportunities that we see her converse with other great actors such as Oyelowo, or Nyong’o. And speaking of Nyong’o, her portrayal of Phiona’s mother was nothing less than perfection! Nyong’o carries the “motherly” weight of the scenes so expertly, I was blown away. And just like Nalwanga, Nyong’o’s ability to convey non-verbal emotion was off the charts! Just a clear indication of perfection across the board.

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Another thing to notate about the film is its ability to tell the story, and tell it well. Many biopics have been made through the cinema history, and only a handful are really still remembered. As I mentioned before, films like 1993’s Rudy or the 2013 Jackie Robinson biopic 42 carry a unique storytelling method to them, one that grabs audiences right away, and tells them to strap in for a great journey. Queen of Katwe does the same. Its non-linear approach to delivering a time-told tale of the “little guy (or girl, in this case)” proves successful, and captivating.

The film’s director, Mira Nair, translates the Phiona’s story with such care and attention to detail that audiences find themselves invested in the story before they even realize it. You are rooting for the main character during a chess match, and you don’t even know what’s happening! By the end of the film, you find yourself fully engrossed in Phiona’s tale, and pining for more of the story to be told. That is the sign of great storytelling, when you are left with the desire to continue the tale. Nair does just this, and more, with the film, not disappointing fans in the least.

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Overall, Queen of Katwe takes the story of a little girl in the small area in Kampala, and brings the enormity of its impact, not only in Uganda, but in the worldwide community of chess, to moviegoers like you and me. I have no doubt that this will be an Oscar contender, and although the story is one that you may not have heard, you will definitely be expounding on the efforts and accolades of one Phiona Mutesi. Not only for her achievement in the field of chess, but in her achievement of changing the world around her, one piece at a time.

Rating: 4.5/5 atoms

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