QUEEN OF KATWE Review – About Much More Than “Chess”

Underdog stories that take place in the midst of competition can be incredibly difficult for filmmakers to approach.  In order to work on the inspirational level that these stories generally strive to reach, many of them have a tendency to become a little too predictable.  That is why it isn’t the competition that makes a movie in this genre successful, but instead it’s the people and their internal struggles that matter most.  QUEEN OF KATWE is both inspiring and heartwarming, because the filmmakers behind Disney’s new feature seem to understand this and allow the story to work on its audience through the incredible portrayals that the actors bring to each of their individual characters. Continue reading for our full QUEEN OF KATWE review.

QUEEN OF KATWE

Madina Nalwanga stars as Phiona Mutesi in Disney’s QUEEN OF KATWE, based on the true story of a young girl from Uganda whose world changes when she is introduced to the game of chess. Directed by Mira Nair, the film also stars Oscar (TM) winner Lupita Nyong’o and David Oyelowo. © 2016 Disney Enterprises Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Inspired by a true story and adapted from Tim Crothers’ book “The Queen of Katwe: One Girl’s Triumphant Path to Becoming a Chess Champion,” the film opens in 2007 with a young Phiona Mutesi living in one of the poorest parts of Uganda with her mother Nakku Harriet, brothers Mugabi Brian and Richard, as well as her sister Night.  During the day they sell corn on the streets so that the family can just scrape by.  One day Phiona comes across a chess program taught by Robert Katende and although shy at first, Phiona quickly finds herself not only taking to the game of chess, but actually falling in love with it.  As Phiona begins to excel at the game and even win some tournaments, she begins to see the competition as a guide towards a better life for her whole family.

QUEEN OF KATWE

Disney’s QUEEN OF KATWE, 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. © 2016 Disney Enterprises Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Director Mira Nair, along with screenwriter William Wheeler effectively give us a story that is in many ways very cookie cutter.  There are very few surprises in where the plot goes, as we have seen it all so many times before.  In the long run, this doesn’t matter though, because Wheeler does a really good job with breathing real life into the main characters whom he introduces us to.  He writes them as true to life, never seeming too interested in elevating any of the situations or character traits for the sake of cinema.  This allows us a chance to see Phiona, her family and her mentor Robert as real people rather than just movie interpretations of the those who inspired the film.

QUEEN OF KATWE

(L-R): Madina Nalwanga and Lupita Nyong’o, photo by Edward Echwalu © 2015 Disney Enterprises Inc. All Rights Reserved.

 

The movie’s ability to draw us in may start with the script, but ultimately gets its real emotional strength from the performers brought together to play the leads.  In a film like this, how the audience relates to the main character is incredibly important and by using a first-time actress, veteran director Nair (SALAAM BOMBAY) took a major risk.  Luckily, Madina Nalwanga turns out to be the perfect choice for the role of Phiona.  She effectively conveys Phiona’s struggles as she makes her way through the hard life that has been forced upon her, while journeying to the place of growing inner strength that is needed in order to move forward toward her goals.  She has a growing sense that anything is possible in a world where it may not seem so easy.  Performing opposite Oscar winner Lupita Nyong’o (12 YEARS A SLAVE) and multiple Golden Globe award nominee David Oyelowo (SELMA), Nalwanga performs like a pro.  Reaching deep inside herself, she effectively gives Phiona the right emotional dimension that forms the heart of the story.

QUEEN OF KATWE

(L-R) David Oyelowo is Robert Katende and Oscar-winner Lupita Nyong’o is Harriet. © 2016 Disney Enterprises Inc. All Rights Reserved.

 

Oyelowo, who inspired audiences a couple of years ago playing Martin Luther King in the film SELMA, takes on his supporting role of Robert Katende in a more understated manner.  In almost every movie that tells a story of this kind there’s a mentor character who ultimately guides the main character onto the right path.  These roles can make or break a movie, because they can sometimes come off as just a tool to move the lead forward on their journey.  Oyelowo gives Robert some real warmth that’s truly inspirational, while also giving the role a true sense of purpose and meaning.  He embodies the character in a way that makes him feel real and never over-exaggerated or fake.  The script itself also gives Robert some real time to develop as an individual outside of Phiona’s story and his relationship with his wife is pretty inspiring on its own merits.

Nyong’o performance as Phiona’s mom, Nakku Harriet, is also pretty striking.  She plays someone who is desperate to protect her family even though everything in life seems to be working against her and the bond that she has with Phiona is inspired.  That being said, it is the relationship that she has with Phiona’s sixteen-year-old sister Night, played by Taryn Kyaze, that is truly fascinating.  Night is making some of the same mistakes that Nakku made at her age and the struggle that Nakku has as she tries to guide and protect her is incredibly powerful.  Both Nyong’o and Kyaze are so good when they are on screen together and their scenes are filled with so much real frustration and anger that there could have been a whole movie based on this relationship alone.

QUEEN OF KATWE

Madina Nalwanga is Phiona Mutesi © 2016 Disney Enterprises Inc. All Rights Reserved.

 

Unfortunately, there is one major weakness that effects the tone of the film and it comes from the fact that Nair and Cinematographer Sean Bobbitt seem to get the overall texture of the movie wrong.  How a movie looks can really effect the tone and overall feel that the story has and at times the images look a little too glossy for their own good, making everything feel a little too clean, staged, and fake.  The film tries so hard to portray the world that surrounds Phiona as the poorest of places and I can’t help but think that the film’s look would have benefited from the use of a matted style where the colors were little more toned down.

QUEEN OF KATWE

(L-R) David Oyelowo is Robert Katende and Madina Nalwanga is Phiona Mutesi © 2016 Disney Enterprises Inc. All Rights Reserved.

 

QUEEN OF KATWE is an effective film.  The performers do an amazing job in bringing some real depth to the story and it’s themes.  Audiences will emotionally connect with Phiona and her family, while also being inspired by the relationship that she has with her mentor.  A by the books underdog story, it rises to a higher level, because of a great cast of actors who truly seem to love and understand the characters that they are playing.

Queen of Katwe

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About Mark Oguschewitz

Mark Oguschewitz moved to Los Angeles, California after graduating with a film degree from Columbia College in Chicago, Ill. Pursuing a career in the industry, Mark became an award winning freelance editor. He is also known for being the creative consultant for the podcast "Skywalking through Neverland" and co-host of the Podcast "Talking Apes TV." Mark's short film "Gourmet" took the Best Micro-Short honor at the International Horror and Sci-Fi film festival in 2007. His spare time is all about movies. It's not just entertainment, but has become more of a real passion, as he tries to see everything he can. Art house or Blockbuster – It doesn't matter, he loves them all.