“Queen of Katwe,” a Disney movie directed by Mira Nair about a real-life dirt-poor Ugandan girl who becomes a national chess champion, sounds like the kind of shameless heart-tugger that usually sends me heading for the hills (and I don’t mean the Hollywood Hills).
Well, it is shameless, and it tugs the heart in all the obvious places, but it has a winning vivaciousness and a trio of performances by its lead actors that transcend its “inspirational” niche.
Phiona Mutesi (Madina Nalwanga) lives in a shantytown called Katwe on the outskirts of the capital city of Kampala, Uganda. As we are shown, she demonstrates a prodigious aptitude for chess at age 9 even though she cannot read and has only a hand-painted chess board to play on.
Her passion for chess might never have emerged were it not for the industriousness of Robert Katende (David Oyelowo), a missionary with the local Sports Outreach ministry who has introduced chess into the school curriculum to accommodate those children whose parents forbid them to play soccer because of the cost that injuries might entail.
Phiona’s widowed mother, Harriet (Lupita Nyong’o), sells vegetables in the local market to support Phiona and her two frisky younger brothers. (A teenage sister has flown the coop with an older man.) Harriet, of course, wants nothing to do with this chess business. (If she did, at least right away, there wouldn’t be a movie.) Although Nair sweetens somewhat the dire poverty in which this family is embroiled – the starvation and disease in the shantytown is not presented with full force – she makes it clear that Harriet isn’t simply a spoilsport. She wants her children to survive (both her husband and one of her children have died), and chess is about as far removed from her world as the Milky Way.
This is one of Nyong’o’s very few on-screen performances since she won the Oscar for “12 Years a Slave,” and her range here is even more extensive than it was in that film. She has the rare ability to come across as fierce and indomitable without seeming fraudulent. She doesn’t play up Harriet’s heroism because she knows that, for Harriet, combating the indignities of her life is an act not of heroism but of survival. Her scenes with Nalwanga are charged with emotional crosscurrents. Harriet recognizes her daughter’s need to rise up out of poverty, but it isn’t until Phiona heads to the championship that she realizes the gift that has been bestowed upon the family. And even winning isn’t what it’s all about for Harriet: It’s about the ecstatic smile on her daughter’s face.
It’s unavoidable that Harriet and Robert will face off over the girl’s fate, since he, in his own way, is as resolute as she is. Like Nyong’o, Oyelowo, who was so impressive as Martin Luther King Jr. in “Selma,” has a way of imbuing heroic characters with a humanity that rescues them from plaster sainthood. He is able to do this, I think, by understanding the fragility of these men. In his best scene in “Queen of Katwe,” he breaks the news to his wife, sheepishly, almost woefully, that he loves his ministry position too much to accept a lucrative engineering job. The moment feels right – his choice feels right – because everything leading up to it has prepared him for it.
Nalwanga is not a trained actress, and so her performance as Phiona has more to do with her intense, almost rapt presence than with any honed performing skills. But even though at times she seems too blank-faced, too impassive (except when Phiona is winning at chess), she is never less than compelling. She doesn’t betray the role with winsomeness. She understands that Phiona and her mother share the same steel.
Nair and her screenwriter, William Wheeler, who based his script on a book by Tim Crothers, keep everything hopping even though it’s clear where this movie is going from the first frame. Nair has a home in Kampala, and her affection for the Ugandan people comes through despite the heavy-duty hoopla that sometimes infuses the film and threatens to rival the worst excesses of “Slumdog Millionaire.” (I definitely could have done without the music video-style closing credits.) This is not the hardscrabble movie that the director of the harrowing “Salaam Bombay!,” her first and best feature, would have made; it’s slicker and more blatantly crowd-pleasing. But she manages to do justice to these people’s lives, and when, at the end, the real-life characters show up on-screen and stand smiling beside their actor counterparts, the screen lights up along with the audience. Grade: B (Rated PG for thematic elements, an accident scene and some suggestive material.)