Nutshell: Not only is this a lovely feel-good movie that based on a lovely feel-good story that really happened, Queen of Katwe takes viewers by the hand and shows them a whole new real world. Director Mira Nair, along with actors Lupita Nyong’o, David Lyelowo and newcomer Madina Nalwanga, breathe life into this tale, bringing to light an area of the world many know very little about. That’s just as impressive as Phiona’s Grand Master accomplishment. Grade: A
“In chess, the little one can become the big one.”
Story: A young girl who sells corn on the streets of Uganda finds a love of chess thanks to a kind hearted teacher. As her skill grows, she moves up the ranks, and dreams of being a Master chess player, so she can help her family.
Genre I’d put it in: Feel Good Real-Life Princess Pic
Remake, Sequel, Based-On, or Original: Based on the book The Queen of Katwe: A Story of Life, Chess, and One Extraordinary Girl’s Dream of Becoming a Grandmaster. And as ESPN Films also has production credit, their 2011 piece on Phiona probably played a part as well.
Gotta say: I love a good fairy tale, don’t you? I especially love one where the happy ending actually happened in real life. And Disney picked a winner when they decided to make Queen of Katwe. A young girl growing up in extreme poverty (sometimes the homes her family lived in had no roof. Or walls.) A determined mother looking out for her children even in the worst of circumstances. A teacher hoping to make a difference in the lives of children. Makes your heart swell, don’t it? So does this film.
Director Mira Nair (Mississippi Masala), who lives near Katwe, Uganda part of the year, lets her love of the country she calls home show in this film. Yes, there are scenes of poverty that will make you gasp and get misty. (Y’know, if you’re human.) But the overall story is one that’ll uplift you. That Nair decided to put together the actors with their real-life counterparts at the film’s final bow – along with what those real life folks are doing now – only serves to spread the joy.
As for the actors, Nyong’o does an amazing job as Phiona’s mother Nakku Harriet; expect another Oscar nom for her wonderfully restrained yet powerful performance. Oyelowo, as teacher Robert Katende, plays his role well, finding the balance rather than simply going full hero mode. But it’s newcomer Madina Nalwanga as Phiona that is a revelation. This is her first film, and she’s amazing. She’s able to take Phiona from a kid joking around with her friends and family, to a stone-faced chess badass, making the craft of it look easy. By the way, all those other chess players? A good number of them are actually Katende’s students, and while they’re playing versions of themselves, the camera loves them while they deliver first-rate performances. Talk about art imitating life…
The soundtrack is just as much of a revelation. Spotlighting performers from Uganda and other areas of Africa, as well as the usual Oscar bait songs, it’s filled with crazy cool beats and infectious melodies. I’m putting money down now that Alicia Keys will be performing “Back to Life” from the film at next year’s Oscar ceremony…but I’d really love to see Kampala’s Young Cardamom & HAB perform “#1 Spice” which has been my earworm all this week. (Thank you, guys.)
Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to practice the incredibly cool way Ugandans finger-snap. It’s all over this film, and believe me it’s harder than it looks. I don’t think I’ll ever get close, but I’ve gotta try.
#Protip: Interested in helping the Chess Outreach program help others like Phiona? You can totally do that.