The latest film from Disney and director Mira Nair has a near-irresistible hook: the return of the luminous Lupita Nyong’o in human form, emerging from the CGI “Jungle” of the past year.
That may sound silly, but the total centering of Black African voices (and faces) in “Queen of Katwe” is an encouraging step forward for the studio that made the 2014 white savior baseball flick “Million Dollar Arm” and for an industry often intent on showcasing Blackness only in the context of brutalization, poverty and the white saviors who rescue them.
To be sure, poverty figures prominently here. Phiona Mutesi (newcomer Madina Nalwanga) is a quiet, stubborn pre-teen living in the slums of Kampala, Uganda with her fierce single mother Harriet (Lupita Nyong’o) and her three siblings. For Phiona, the future is a choice between a hard life selling maize in the marketplace or finding herself a “sugar daddy” boyfriend like her older sister Night (Taryn Kyaze). That is, until she discovers the game of chess.
“Katwe” is essentially a fill-in-the-blanks Disney sports picture — plucky, talented kid faces impossible odds, determined mentor, success then failure then success — but Nair fills those blanks in with vibrant, loving specificity.
That determined mentor is Robert Katende (David Oyelowo), a generous charmer with a spectacular collection of floral button-ups. Katende is a part-time sports ministry employee who decides to teach kids from the Katwe slums chess — the kids are too poor to play football because they can’t pay the hospital bills for injuries. Phiona and her brother Brian (Martin Kabanza) are drawn in by the prospect of free porridge but stay for the stimulation of the game. And Phiona soon discovers that with some practice, she has an unusual aptitude for the sport.
Chess often crops up as an overused metaphor for power grabs between elites — someone like Frank Underwood being laughably dramatic about a political rival comes to mind. It’s nice to see chess reclaimed as a great equalizer, a way to show up rich “city kids.” “Katwe” is, of course, a Disney movie, so chess does get the heavy metaphor treatment. What screenwriter could resist? The difference is that here, the emphasis is placed on the “promotion” rule in which a pawn — or a “little man,” as one of Phiona’s classmates calls it — can become a queen.
Phiona is one such little man but she is joined by a wildly charismatic cast of fellow little men: her classmates from the chess school. They are funny and sweet and distinct, they are some of the only people in the world ever to have pulled off the fedora and their discovery of ketchup while away at a chess competition is a pitch-perfect celebratory moment, at once hysterical and touching.
The first half of “Katwe” fizzes with excitement and anticipation. The early competitions are chair-grippingly good and the victories elicited applause from the audience. The Katwe kids, or Katwe cool cats as they dub themselves, are easy to root for and there are some fun villains from the rich kid school, like the reigning champion with the perfectly evil name of Pritchard. Despite her success at the competition, Phiona leaves feeling like her opponent let her win, unconvinced that she could beat a city kid.
That energy is aided by the colorful, joyful costume design by Mobolaji Dawodu and by the frenetic camera work of Sean Bobbitt, who zips through the chaotic streets of the Kampala slums to a score of kicky African songs. Nair’s affection for her hometown Kampala is palpable and refreshingly specific.
This mood of cheerful chaos makes for a lively but sometimes messy film. The plotting of “Katwe” is a little loose, and the second half in particular takes on a patchwork feel. Individual scenes remain smart and arresting, in particular a monologue from Harriet about the consequences of showing a slum girl a better life and then sending her right back to her ramshackle home, but the momentum is still lost. This undercuts the film’s climactic moment, but by then anybody with a heart is already invested in Phiona and willing to sit through a bit of muddle to watch her triumph.
The underdog movie is all about the journey to confidence — the underestimated person beating the odds. In “Queen of Katwe,” this theme is driven home with unusual force. It takes a long time for Phiona to believe that a girl from the slums, illiterate and poor, could ever be a chess grandmaster and her imposter syndrome towards the rich kids dogs her even after her early successes. If the point is made a little too explicitly at times, Phiona’s road to self-worth remains a powerful and timely reminder that she, and young women like her, belong and matter.
“Queen of Katwe” will open at AMC Metreon 16 on Friday.