Disney has a long history of inspirational, “based on a true story” sports-related films, and while Queen of Katwe checks off more than a few of the boxes that these films seem to require, it’s still a beautifully shot, somewhat refreshing story that also manages to set itself apart from superficially similar films.
Ugandan girl Phiona Mutesi (Madina Nalwanga) lives in a small shack in Katwe, a slum area of Uganda’s capital city Kampala, with her single mother Harriet (Lupita Nyong’o), her older sister Night (Taryn Kyaze) and her two younger brothers. Phiona and her brother, who are told by their mother to sell vegetables to feed the family, instead begin to take part in a sports ministry program led by Robert Katende (David Oyelowo). Through the program, Phiona is introduced to chess, which comes naturally to her. Her lack of education doesn’t stop her from beating players with years of experience.
Phiona’s gift leads her to chess competitions in wealthier parts of Uganda, then to the Sudan and Russia, among other countries. In these places, Phiona sees for the first time what life can be like beyond the slums of Katwe, and she begins to reject the version of adulthood she’s seen modeled by her mother and sister – a rejection that Harriet takes personally.
The film is aided in large part by its two main adult actors. As Harriet, Nyong’o brings depth to a character who very easily could be a cliché. Her distrust throughout the film is understandable; it comes from the circumstances that surround her, not because she’s just naturally distrustful. She clearly loves her children and wants better for them, but their way of life is all she knows. As Katende, Oyelowo brings a great amount of optimism to a character who can be stubborn and who’s gone through his own tragedies in life.
Beyond that, the hopeful tone of the film helps make it stand out. Rather than focus on the sadness of Phiona’s life, or those of Harriet or Katende, the film focuses on hope and joy. It’s a solid choice for this type of inspirational film, especially considering the sport of choice – chess – is far from an engaging one to depict on-screen.
If there’s anything that holds the film back, it’s the predictability. Not only is the final outcome of the film easily predictable, but the drama that arises throughout the film is formulaic as well. There aren’t any surprises about when setbacks in anyone’s life occurs, even – in that sense, it’s what we’ve seen dozens of times before. But that doesn’t keep the film from being solid in its inspirational qualities, and potentially enjoyable for whole families.