Triumphing over adversity in competitive environments is a Disney speciality, but the studio rarely pulls it off with the dignity and grace of Mira Nair’s “Queen of Katwe.” The film is less about dramatic reversals of fortune or epic journeys and far more concerned with how circumstances and biases can prevent such developments from taking place.
As the film’s young protagonist Phiona (newcomer Madina Nalwanga) states towards the end of the film, “I fear certain things will never change.” Yet if not for the perseverance and faith of her mentor Robert Katende (David Oyelowo), this chess prodigy might have let such doubts keep her paralyzed through inaction. He spots her incredible ability to see a whopping eight moves ahead on the board and fosters her intellectual development, a process which requires great sacrifice on his behalf.
The largest obstacle in the way of Phiona’s realization of her own potential is a surprising one – her mother, Harriet (Lupita Nyong’o). A widow forced to support several children by selling maize in the slums of Uganda, she is justifiably hesitant to authorize her daughter spending time on chess. If the pursuit of master status does not pan out, then Harriet views the loss as a frivolous waste that does nothing to prepare Phiona for making a living like her.
Portraying such a perspective presents a conundrum for Nyong’o, who is tasked with conveying both maternal grace and strict authority without coming off as a dream crusher. Her performance engages through its empathy, ultimately allowing for a fuller understanding of why she does not believe in silver bullets – be they chess championships or sugar daddies. While “Queen of Katwe” is primarily the story of Phiona’s rise in the world of chess, an equally important evolution takes place for Harriet as she analyzes her place in the world.
Nair shows that world, it should be noted, in stark detail without ever resorting to so-called “poverty porn.” Her camera, guided by Steve McQueen collaborator Sean Bobbitt, skips the grimy details and focuses more on the stratification of the two sides of Ugandan capital Kampala. Any long shot taking in Katwe also captures an urbanized, industrialized city center in the background.
Inequality, not destitution, is the real enemy in “Queen of Katwe,” and it makes for a more daunting foe. Hand someone a check, and they can hypothetically walk out of poverty. Alleviating inequality, on the other hand, requires systemic change and the devotion of resources to those given less. B+ /