Queen of Katwe

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Friday September 23, 2016

'Queen of Katwe'
'Queen of Katwe'  (Source:Walt Disney Pictures)

Maybe it's the partnership with ESPN films, or perhaps bringing director Mira Nair on board had something to do with it, but Disney's "Queen of Katwe" doesn't feel like Disney film. Is that a good thing? In terms of letting the corn lie mostly in the baskets of the Ugandan street vendors who eke out a living here, and also in terms of a real-life figure of youthful female empowerment -- as opposed to still another "Disney Princess" -- the answer is a resounding yes.

The title refers to a neighborhood in Uganda's capital city of Kampala. The "Queen" of this picture is a girl named Phiona Mutesi (Madina Nalwanga), a middle child of widow single mother Harriet (Lupita Nyong'o). The term applies because Phiona, after discovering a youth chess club run by a local minister, quickly becomes a chess prodigy, a national champion, and an international sensation.

Phiona's native ability is a large part of her success, of course, but in a setting that's unkind to women she also needs some luck and a lot of good will. She gets the latter from the minister, Robert Katende (David Oyelowo), but she also needs the support and blessing of her family. It's hard going: Harriet is skeptical at first, thinking that Robert's youth chess club is some sort of gambling enterprise. Once she learns of its legitimacy, and its educational nature, she grudgingly allows Phiona to continue with the club, whose mostly male members don't always respond well to Phiona's ability to trounce them.

Phiona also has the support of her brother Benjamin (Ethan Nazario Lubega), who proves to be an able chess partner. (It was he who led her -- quite literally - to the chess club to begin with.) But the family's fortunes have plummeted since the death of Phiona's father, and, reduced to selling corn to car-driving commuters, they live one step from living in the same streets where they ply their trade. Older sister Night (Taryn Kyaze) has gone off with a motorcycle-riding man, which deprives the family of some income; letting Phiona spend hours at the chess club has to be a financial hardship, but Harriet allows it al the same. (At the same time, the highly principled Harriet fends off all and any suggestions that she should find herself a "sugar daddy" or otherwise secure economic resources through sexual means.)

It takes considerable charm and tenacity, but Robert manages to secure a spot for his chess team -- they call themselves The Pioneers -- at an elite school competition. (The kids from the ghetto are as raucous as one might expect, but also quite orderly and respectful; the rich kids, in contrast, are snobs: One of them wipes his hands after a pre-match handshake.) It's at tis match that the team, and Phiona in particular, start to draw notice. Doors begin to open, and eventually the team are participating in national and international chess competitions.

Life on the streets of a ghetto in Uganda? In a Disney movie? It's far from the romanticized exoticism of animated classics like "Aladdin," but all the same the film bears the stamp of a certain filmmaking formula. The Pioneers are a colorful bunch; their antics are charming. The coach and his wife are almost too good to be true, while Phiona's own mother suffers fits of jealousy but steps back to allow her daughter the space she needs to grow. We've certainly seen these character trajectories in movies before, and sometimes it feels like that familiarity is being embraced as a means to narrative shortcuts. As she brings home more and bigger trophies, Phiona starts to get a swelled head. Her mother expresses concern about it to the coach. But suddenly, without a scene in which the coach (or the mother) sit her down for a good talking to, Phiona seemingly straightens herself out.

Other reliable plot devices creep in: Phiona's lingering self-doubt and feelings of inferiority crop up here and there, and we're not really given a lot to help us understand how she copes with those feelings. In another plot element, the family's financial situation suddenly seems to improve significantly, despite the expenses associated with Phiona's career in chess. Is Phiona already making money at the game? (Her wish to become a grand master is bound up with the promise of a stipend, so this seems unlikely.)

Other family dramas pop up only to be whisked aside. The film cruises through several years, beginning at a climactic moment before flashing back to the beginning and then working its way forward again, and of course the movie won't have time to cover everything in detail. But these gestures and unfinished sketches stand out and leave one a little unsatisfied, especially given the sorts of dramatic passages -- a flash flood hits the ghetto at one point -- that are exciting but not necessary to the main story thrust.

Quibbles with narrative choices aside, Nair's direction brings us right to the streets and shacks of Katwe, which is where the story is rooted and where the camera belongs. Her direction makes the environment become alive -- and the cast, too. Nair demonstrates a real ability with a large group of youthful actors, but she also provides moments of strife and tenderness among the adults, especially Robert and his wife. (Robert has an interesting subplot of his own, in that he's seeking a better job as an engineer at a water utility.)

Nair avoids condescension (this is no "Slumdog Millionaire") even if she doesn't completely escape the tidal pull of feel-good movie making. Check, and mate: This Disney "Queen" has more to offer than a raft of "Princess" movies.

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.