Hollywood regularly churns out underdog sports movies, but rarely do modern entries in the genre work as well as Queen of Katwe, a true story that centers on a non-traditional subject (a Ugandan girl) and a non-traditional game (chess). Like this year's Eddie the Eagle (side note: holy crap, Eddie the Eagle came out this year?! I would have pegged it as a 2014 or 2015 film for sure), the film leans heavily on the formulaic aspects of its genre, but it's so enjoyable to watch these actors and these characters, it hardly matters that you know every major beat before it happens.
Queen of Katwe
Director: Mira Nair
Starring: Madina Nalwanga, David Oyelowo, Lupita Nyong'o
Life is difficult for Phiona (Madina Nalwanga), who toils alongside her single mother (Lupita Nyong'o) to help keep their family fed. One day, she follows her brother after work and discovers The Pioneers, a chess club of local children led by coach Robert Katende (David Oyelowo). Despite being uneducated, Phiona quickly takes to the game, and before long, she has beaten everyone in her village — including her coach. The film follows her improbable ascent through the ranks of national tournaments and even into international play.
In a time when the pop culture conversation has rightly demanded more diverse voices in our entertainment, Queen of Katwe is a shining example of answering that call. It's a studio film directed by a woman (Indian filmmaker Mira Nair) that gives us a fairly realistic look at an area of the world not often explored in American cinema (and when it is seen in other films, it's often little more than a backdrop for chase scenes in action movies). It also stars an almost exclusively black cast, led by a wonderful new face in Madina Nalwanga. She plays Phiona with an excellent blend of determination and fun, with the occasional flash of over-confidence that comes with being a kid. David Oyelowo and Lupita Nyong'o deliver performances just as strong as we've come to expect from them, and the rest of the supporting cast — largely children — provide much of the film's joy in humorous moments peppered throughout.
In the film, chess is a metaphor for life not just in scenes where characters say things like, "In chess, the small one can become the big one" and "What matters is when you reset the pieces and play again," but in an even more literal way. One scene involves Oyelewo's coach setting up a board, assigning values to the enemy pieces that correlate to the children's lives (a rook becomes flood waters, a knight becomes troublemakers waiting to rob them, etc), and explaining that though they may feel boxed in on all sides, if they think through their options and move strategically, there's a way to survive.
The movie may center on chess, but it's really a story about being able to embrace our upbringing while also overcoming obstacles and growing beyond societal and class limitations placed on us at birth. When Phiona travels to a nicer part of the world to compete and returns to the relative poverty of her home life, a decent chunk of the movie deals with her struggle with adapting back to the reality of her surroundings.
There are a few nitpicks barely worth mentioning (an unnecessary in medias res opening, some distractingly bad ADR work that smells like studio interference), but on the whole, this is a largely enjoyable movie that accomplishes what it sets out to do and basks in the benefits of its charismatic performers. If there's any justice in the world, Nalwanga's star turn here will earn her more opportunities in Hollywood. We'll see if that happens and how far the industry has actually come, but Queen of Katwe is definitely a step in the right direction.
Bonus: the closing credits do something I've never seen before: they show footage of the actors standing alongside their real-life counterparts with the two people interacting. Biopics sometimes end with side-by-side photos of the actors and the person he or she is playing to show how similar they look, but because the events of this movie are so recent and all of the actual subjects of the story are still alive, the filmmakers were able to showcase that comparison in live-action. It's a neat effect that I don't imagine will be replicated very often considering the specific circumstances under which this movie was made.