4.5 stars. Rated PG, for occasional dramatic intensity
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 9.30.16
Inspirational stories don’t come much more heartwarming than this one.
Queen of Katwe depicts the unlikely saga of Phiona Mutesi, a Ugandan slum girl who, despite overwhelming odds both cultural and socio-economic, grew up to become one of her country’s first titled female chess players. And — mind you — she’s only 20 years old, as these words are typed.
|As Coach Robert Katende (David Oyelowo, standing) watches expectantly, Phiona|
(Madina Nalwanga, far left) plays a telling game of chess against Benjamin
(Ethan Nazario Lubega, far right).
Director Mira Nair’s fact-based account of Phiona’s rise to chess glory is earnest and uplifting, while also unflinching and uncompromising. Our immersion in the Ugandan slum of Katwe can’t help drawing anguished gasps: this despite the fact that scripter William Wheeler — adapting Tim Crothers’ January 2011 ESPN Magazine article and subsequent book — clearly has glossed over some of the grimmer details.
This is, after all, a family-friendly Disney drama; unduly horrifying the target audience would have been a serious mistake. But Nair and Wheeler nonetheless make their points, most notably the tragedy that results every time a child’s inquisitive mind is blunted — or shut down — by environmental circumstance.
We can but wonder: How many other Phiona Mutesis are Out There, waiting to have their respective passions nurtured? Each and every one left unfound, uninspired, is an incalculable loss.
Nair is blessed further by a talented roster of performers, beginning with stars Lupia Nyong’o, David Oyelowo and Madina Nalwanga; rarely has the input of a casting director — in this case, Dinaz Stafford — yielded such impressive results. While it’s true that Nair is a gifted director with the skill to extract nuanced performances from her actors, these efforts clearly are easier when granted such gifted raw materials from which to sculpt the characters.
Nair has a long and productive history with ensemble dramas that place their protagonists at a cultural crossroads, from Salaam Bombay and Mississippi Masala to Monsoon Wedding and The Namesake. We can’t help identifying with the characters in her films, who struggle with grace and dignity to navigate generational gaps, language barriers and institutional hurdles, all while trying to remain true to themselves.