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.
This film opens with a brief flash-forward, as 14-year-old Phiona (Nalwanga) slips out of her sandals, her bare toes curling slightly as they make contact with a cold floor. Cinematographer Sean Bobbitt’s camera pans up, noting the fidgety body language of a nervous young woman who, once we see her face, has the deer-in-the-headlights wariness of somebody who senses that she does not belong.
Indeed. The large, formal room is filled with carefully positioned furniture, impeccably garbed proctors and scores of contestants of all ages. Phiona — tellingly, we don’t know her yet — can’t help the worried, What am I doing here? glance that she shares with her mentor, Robert Katende (Oyelowo).
At which point we bounce back five years, to an overview of the deplorable “neighborhood” in Katwe, Kampala, where 9-year-old Phiona shares a hovel with her mother, Nakku Harriet (Nyong’o), older sister Night (Taryn Kyaze), younger brother Brian (Martin Kabanza) and an infant brother. Life is harsh: Minimal ends — which is to say, just food — are met because Phiona and Brian spend every day hawking corn in the streets, hoping to entice the occupants in passing cars. School isn’t even a thought.
Nakku Harriet is strict, of necessity; she has endured the loss of a husband, along with vague references to another elder daughter, no longer present. Night has grown old enough to become rebellious, which tightens Nakku Harriet’s grip on her other children.
Even so, Phiona can’t help noticing that Brian always sells his fruit in a giddy frenzy each day, in order to dash ... somewhere. She finally follows, discovering that he has joined a bustling gang of children who gather in a dusty, makeshift Agape Church, under the guidance of a missionary/social worker (Katende) affectionately dubbed “Coach.” He ensures that every child first gets a generous helping of porridge, and then pairs them off on rickety benches, facing each other across well-worn chess boards and chipped pieces.
(As Crothers noted, in his ESPN article, the game is so foreign to these children, that there’s no word for it in their native language.)
Katende spots Phiona. “Young girl,” he says, with a warm smile. “Come in. Don’t be afraid.”
What Katende is attempting is no less improbable than Jaime Escalante’s determination to transform Garfield High School’s poorest-performing students into AP calculus scholars.
And yet, why not? Who’s to say where springs a chess savant?
Phiona’s first exposure to this strange game is a tutoring session at the hands of the younger, irresistibly adorable Gloria (Nikita Waligwa), who wrinkles her nose and complains of this newcomer’s aroma of slum. The gibe hurts; we see Phiona withdraw into herself. But she otherwise ignores the comment, instead concentrating with palpable intensity on what she’s being told and shown.
She’s careful to bathe, thoroughly, before returning the next day. But return she does.
First-time actress Nalwanga’s performance is as delicately shaped — as subtly precise — as any I can recall enjoying. She expresses Phiona’s subsequent internal struggle via posture, glances and telling gazes. She talks sparingly; girls in Ugandan slums do not call attention to themselves. And yet she gradually becomes aware that she possesses this gift, this talent that sets her apart, and she cannot fathom how to react.
Overt expressions of joy, so common with First World children, are regarded with suspicion.
Some of this we grasp via Nair’s finely tuned storytelling; much of it we get from Nalwanga herself. The result is as thorough a character portrait as could be expected from cinema. Phiona’s rare smiles are as radiant as a sunrise.
Nalwanga is in good company. Nyong’o is equally persuasive as the harried, ferociously protective and constantly alert Nakku Harriet. We vividly recall Nyong’o’s Oscar-winning performance in 12 Years a Slave; this role is just as compelling, just as real, just as heartbreaking. Like any mother, Nakku Harriet wants her children to have better lives; like any slum dweller, she instinctively mistrusts outsiders, which includes Katende.
Nyong’o makes an emotional symphony of this woman’s struggle to believe what Katende tells her: that Phiona has a gift that literally could change her life.
The jovial Oyelowo, well remembered as Dr. Martin Luther King in 2014’s Selma, makes the shrewdly perceptive Katende an equally indomitable force, albeit one who relies on calm, compassion and charm. Every movie-going generation is given stories with memorable teachers, coaches or mentors; Oyelowo’s Katende belongs in their company. His performance is elegant; there’s no other word for it.
Kabanza’s Brian is the yin to Phiona’s yang: carefree and irrepressible, where she’s shy and withdrawn. Ethan Nazario Lubega is memorable as Benjamin, the first boy in Katende’s group to lose a game to Phiona: a feat both comic and (for him) tragic. Boys never lose to girls!
Kabanza and Waligwa (the cute-as-a-bug Gloria) also are first-time actors. Stafford has quite an eye for talent.
Nair, determined to deliver authenticity, based principal photography in Kampala’s Katwe and Kibuli slums. Bobbitt frequently employs the widest possible lenses, for all-encompassing tableaus that make it impossible to determine where the actual setting bleeds into production designer Stephanie Carroll’s meticulously constructed artifice. Indeed, many scenes are filmed within Katwe’s actual Agape Church.
The cutting-edge Afrobeat soundtrack, curated by Ugandan rapper Zohran Kwame Mamdani, features snatches of 30 songs by the likes of A Pass, MC Galaxy and the Afrigo Big Band; these tunes integrate deftly with Alex Heffes’ orchestral underscore.
As befits any properly conceived drama, Phiona’s saga has ups and downs, triumphs and crises. Many scenes stand out; one of the most striking occurs the first time Katende is allowed to bus his best players to a regional competition hosted at a boarding school. Phiona and her jubilant companions, delighted by the mere prospect of a trip beyond Katwe’s oppressive reach, are rendered mute by their first sight of these privileged children, in their fancy matching uniforms.
It’s a moment you won’t soon forget. One of many.
Given all the tragic news that emanates daily from Africa — nothing but war, famine and despair, from so many different countries — Nair’s film is doubly refreshing: a positive, optimistic journey that transforms a downtrodden young woman into a reluctant celebrity. Enjoyable as the film itself is, the epilogue is particularly choice and poignant, as each actor, in turn, joyously greets the actual person s/he has portrayed.
The sense of family — of a shared journey — is palpable.
And now Nair, and her crew and actors, have shared it with us. We’re so fortunate.