Personally, I believe that Chutes & Ladders is the key to world hunger. But that’s just me.
Phiona Mutesi (Madina Nalwanga) is a young girl living in Uganda, which is, essentially, a slum. She and her family constantly struggle to keep a roof over their head, food on their plates, and try to stay on the straight and narrow path so that they don’t have to stoop themselves down to getting money in dirty, sometimes disturbing ways. But for Phiona in particular, her one dream of making it out of the slums, and into a house, with windows, trees, a swing, and most importantly, a front-door, is by becoming one of the greatest chess players in the world. Through the constant tutelage of her teacher Robert Katende (David Oyelowo), she hones her craft and eventually, gets in tournaments. While she wins mostly all of them, the biggest issue for Phiona, according to her mother (Lupita Nyong’o), is that she sees this world outside of Uganda and can’t help but be dissatisfied and somewhat depressed by her poverty. Phiona has to turn all of that sadness, into energy so that she can make all of her wildest dreams come true and make Uganda a very hopeful and happy place, even if it’s only by the game of chess.
“Mother, checkers is for losers. Chess is where the money’s at.”
For some odd reason, despite chess not necessarily being classified as “a sport”, ESPN is here to help produce Queen of Katwe, which automatically will make you think, “cliché”. And if you did think that, you wouldn’t be far off. Queen of Katwe is the rags-to-riches, predictable story that we so often see with sports-related flicks, except that this time, the story is placed in Uganda and features a young, Ugandan girl, doing whatever it is that she can to make out of poverty and into something resembling “financially stable”.
Does it sound familiar? Definitely.
But does it still kind of work? Well, yeah. Surprisingly, it does.
Director Mira Nair has hit a bit of a slump as of late, but seems to get back on the right track with Queen of Katwe, giving us a story that’s as simple as they come, yet, still has a pleasant enough feel to it that makes you feel like it doesn’t matter how many obvious beats the story hits – as long as they’re hitting them in a right way, what’s the problem? Nair sets us in this place, at this time, shows us how awful this girl’s surroundings are, and then shows the happiness, joy and hope that the game of chess brings to her, automatically making us feel the same thing. We know where this story’s going to go once she begins to pick up some awesome skills at chess, but Nair keeps the story, at the very least, tender, that there’s at least some interest into how it’s all going to turn out.
It also helps that Nair doesn’t settle for making this about how terrible-off and poor people in Uganda are, even though, she definitely could have. A far more challenging and adult movie about Uganda would have gone to great lengths to discuss its class-issues, battle with poverty, and most of all, divide between religions (although, if you want that story, just check out God Loves Uganda), but Queen of Katwe is not that kind of movie. After all, it’s a Disney flick, so how on Earth would that be able to fly pass edits and cuts?
Regardless, Nair keeps her focus solely on the story, touches on those issues ever so slightly, and keeps everything moving, even when it seems to be slowing itself up.
Which is to say that Queen of Katwe isn’t perfect; Nair loses a bit of steam about half-way through when we’re supposed to be interested by Phiona’s brief battle with depression, when it all feels a little random and out of left-field. The movie tries to make it an important anecdote that’s meant to drive Phiona even more to achieving her dream of becoming a great chess player, but all it really does is offer David Oyelowo another opportunity to give a great, rousing speech of making one’s self better and overcoming all sorts of odds. Once again, sounds conventional, and it is, but it still works, even if getting those speeches is ham-handed.
That said, the cast are really the ones who keep Queen of Katwe, in some of its far more patchier moments, compelling. Oyelowo is a perfect fit as this minister/coach who cares so much about having these kids achieve their dreams, that he’s willing to risk his own career and marriage over it; Nyong’o’s mother character may seem like another typical, old-timey lady who doesn’t care about her kids hopes and dreams and just wants them to clean their rooms and realize the world is a terrible, unforgiving place, but eventually, she turns around and proves to have the most heart out of all the characters; and newcomer Madina Nalwanga is quite good as Phiona. While she may not always hit the right notes and definitely show that she’s an amateur, there’s still a feeling that Phiona, despite winning all of these games of chess, is still a kid, who just wants to run around and play in the dirt with her friends and family.
Really though, Queen of Katwe works so well with these actors because the people are real. At the end of the flick, we get to learn a little bit about these real people’s lives and actually see them, side-by-side with their acting counterparts. The movie never rips at your tear-ducts, but this moment got me and made me feel like I just saw a true story, with heart, emotion and a great amount of sweetness, play out all in front of my eyes.
And that’s truly something nice.
Consensus: While still conventional and predictable to a fault, Queen of Katwe mostly benefits from a solid cast and heartfelt direction from Mira Nair who has to jump between Disney and ESPN on quite a number of occasions, yet, seems to please both parties, as well as the audience.
6.5 / 10
“Check. Mate. Now leave my sight.”
Photos Courtesy of: Citizen Charlie