‘Queen of Katwe’ plays same game on new board, with great success

Thomas Elrod

As the sky darkens over the slum of Katwe in Kampala, Uganda, the streets are drained of people and rapidly filled with water.

Phiona Mutesi (Madina Nalwanga), her mother Nakku Harriet (Lupita Nyong’o) and Phiona’s siblings fight a life-or-death battle against the current to reunite in the abandoned church they call home.

Triumph over adversity is a staple theme of the underdog sports stories among which “Queen” stands. Director Mira Nair’s tale follows a well-trodden formula: Phiona, the young heroine, becomes a talented chess player under the tutelage of a kind-hearted mentor, Robert Katende (David Oyelowo). She strives to overcome seemingly impossible odds, and is presented with the chance to escape abject poverty. However, “Queen” proves that when executed well, even a commonly used formula can still enthrall — especially when based on a true story.

From the film’s opening, viewers are struck by its quietly progressive qualities. The cast is almost entirely African in heritage, providing an authentic personal and cultural voice rarely seen in mainstream Hollywood cinema. Not only are audiences given well-rounded, three-dimensional Ugandan characters, but they are also exposed to Ugandan cuisine and even music and dance via the
 film’s soundtrack.

Structurally, “Queen” charts a very familiar pattern that sometimes borders on cliché. The film depicts a montage showing Phiona’s chess skills improving over time, fish-out-of-water comedy scenes as the children encounter high society, and uses slow motion during dramatic moments in the climax. While the film is undoubtedly affecting, some of these conventional decisions can obscure rather than enhance the power of the story behind it.

Neither cinematography nor editing is meant to be particularly flashy or virtuosic in this type of story, but director of photography Sean Bobbit and editor Barry Alexander Brown successfully guide the viewer’s eye and emotions throughout Phiona’s journey. There are a few standout moments, such as a silhouetted shot of a child gazing in wonder at the opulence of a private school. There are also a few puzzling decisions, such as an abundance of shaky hand-held camera work in the film’s opening sequences, some disorienting cuts during conversation scenes and one glaringly computer-generated aerial establishing shot.

While editing and cinematography work quietly in the background, the uniformly excellent performances take center stage. Nalwanga is supremely likable and empathetic as Phiona, even as her success in tournaments begins to inflate her ego. Nyong’o convincingly portrays the stern but loving Nakku, a widowed single mother struggling to feed her children while maintaining her independence and integrity. Oyelowo brings pathos and a charming sense of humor to Katende, whose unshakable moral decency and generosity help Phiona overcome the many obstacles in her way.

The film’s symbolism isn’t exactly subtle, but it is effective. Writers William Wheeler and Tim Crothers extract as much mileage as possible from chess metaphors. The transformation of a lowly pawn into a queen after a dangerous journey across the chessboard becomes a motif that resurfaces at several points in the film, and is paid off to great satisfaction.

While “Queen’s” safe, predictable nature poses some problems, these are overshadowed by its warmth, humanity and gripping true story. When the real Phiona, Nakku and Robert join their on-screen counterparts and beam joyfully at the camera during the end credits, viewers can’t help but grin back.