Review: “Queen of Katwe”

4.5 out of 5 stars.

Queen of Katwe” is the rare true story that avoids falling into the usual clichés through the combined work of a brilliant director, cast, and crew.  The film tells the story of Phiona Mutesi (played by Madina Nalwanga), a 10-year-old girl living in the Ugandan slum of Katwe with her single mother Nakku (Lupita Nyong’o) and her three siblings.  One day she stumbles upon a chess team meeting coached by missionary Robert Katende (David Oyelowo), and despite having little formal education, she displays an innate ability for the game.  Under Robert’s tutelage, she becomes a national champion, an oddity both for a girl and for a person with her background, while dealing with the pressures of competition over the years.

“Queen of Katwe” is directed by Mira Nair, who imbues the story with so much vitality through her filmmaking.  Every shot pulses with life, through the colorful backdrops (the movie was filmed entirely on location in Katwe and South Africa), the authentic, Ugandan-inspired score by Alex Heffes, and the expert editing of everything from chess competition montages to meandering through the crowded Katwe slums.

Phiona’s story is remarkable on its own, but it helps that it is told by a fantastic group of actors.  Oyelowo’s Robert Katende joins the ranks of the great inspirational coaches as he does everything in his power to help Phiona and the other children in Katwe realize their full potential, all the while trying to realize his own and do what is best for his family.  Nyong’o is still too young and early in her career to be playing mothers, but I’ll save my Lupita rant for another time, because she is nothing short of stunning in this role.  Nakku is strong; she never lets her kids see her cry or show any other sign of weakness if she can help it.  She’s tough on them, but she’ll do whatever it takes to care for her family.  She is the standout in every scene she’s in; one of the highlights is when she dons her best dress—a family heirloom, in fact—and takes it to the market to sell to help pay for Phiona to compete.  And the end of the film, when she finally receives everything she and her family deserves, is nothing short of heart-wrenching.

Mother (Lupita Nyong’o) and daughter (Madina Nalwanga)

Nalwanga is excellent in her first film role, as she has to navigate everything Phiona goes through over the years: her growing confidence of her chess prowess and eagerness to learn, her over-confidence and smugness, her self-doubt that she’ll ever be as good as she wants to be, and her final realization of who and what she wants to be in this world.  “Queen of Katwe” is as much a coming of age story as it is an inspiring sports drama, and both genres are realized to their full potential here.

But one of the best parts of “Queen of Katwe” comes at the very end, after the story has concluded but before the credits start to roll.  Instead of displaying photos or archival footage of the real people portrayed in the film, one by one the actors stand on the film set and are joined by the person they played onscreen.  That intersection of art and reality is a beautiful way to end a beautiful film that is so inspiring at a time when so many moviegoers are looking for inspiration wherever they can find it.

Runtime: 124 minutes. Rated PG.

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