In chess, when a pawn reaches the other end of the board it can become a queen.
Did you know a new Disney movie came out this weekend about chess in Africa starring Lupita Nyong’o (12 Years a Slave, Star Wars: The Force Awakens) and David Oyelowo (Selma)? I didn’t until two days before I saw it, and I’m glad I did.
Queen of Katwe is somewhat of a formulaic underdog sports story, but it’s formula done well, boosted by lovely and tender performances all around. Based on a true story, Phiona Mutesi (played by promising newcomer Madina Nalwanga) is a soon-to-be chess prodigy living in the slums of Uganda in an area of Kampala, called Katwe. Phiona lives with her single mother (Nyong’o) and three siblings. Phiona has never been to school and can’t read but is introduced to chess by missionary Robert Katende (Oyelowo) and finds she has a natural talent. Katende sees chess-master levels of potential in Phiona and becomes her coach, father figure and friend.
Nyong’o is the stand out here, naturally. Adding depth and complexity to a role that could have otherwise been a cliche “it’s not my dream mom, it’s yours” type of role. Her scenes with Oyelowo are particularly strong, the actors playing two characters with different worldviews bonded by their care for Phiona.
Katwe features many rarities for a film of its scope. Virtually all the leading and supporting actors are black, noteworthy considering the white-out of the 2016 Academy Award nominees. Equally as rare, director Mira Nair is a working women of color in Hollywood.
During production, Disney executives were worried about releasing a film set entirely in Africa. Screenwriter William Wheeler said his goal was to “gently expand the idea of what a ‘Disney film’ could be… to tell an aspirational story about someone from someplace that is not at all familiar to Western audiences.” Even though Katwe still has a glossy, Disney-studio look, it was shot on location and cast many Katwe natives in supporting roles.
For me, one of the most affecting moments was in the end credits. The actors stood side-by-side next to their real life counterparts, adding real emotional weight and joy to the film I seldom see in other “based on a true story” features.
Featuring no real antagonist and the vibrant, lush landscapes of Africa, Katwe is a hidden gem. Sure to be buried under unnecessary sequels, over-hyped, over-financed young adult adaptations and the next comic book movie of the week, Queen of Katwe is worth seeking out.