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Non-Review Review: Queen of Katwe

Early in Queen of Katwe, chess teacher Robert Katende notes that his young prodigy Phiona Mutesi can see eight moves ahead.

It is a remarkable visual, as Phiona halts their game in order to play out the next eight moves of their match culminating in the inevitable checkmate. There is an elegance to the movements, the choreography of the pieces moving across the board, and Mutesi intuitively understands not only where her pieces should go, but where her opponent’s pieces will go. This ability to predict the flow of a particular game, the narrative that it will chart, is the key to Phiona’s future and her best chance of getting out of the Katwe slums.

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In some ways, this sequence feels like something of a commentary on the film itself. The true story of Phiona Mutesi is truly remarkable, serving as an archetypal underdog story about a young girl from the Ugandan slums who went on to become one of the best chess players in the world. Queen of Katwe unfolds rather like that chess game, a series of moves and counter-moves that any savvy audience member will recognise beat-for-beat as the narrative of this sort of tale. Queen of Katwe holds very few surprises in terms of story.

And yet, in spite of that, there is something truly remarkable in watching that story play out, just as there is something striking in watching those pieces of wood move across the board. Queen of Katwe is a beautiful and joyous piece of film, a very old story that is very well-told, anchored in three fantastic central performances and some great direction from Mira Nair.

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In some ways, the combination of a familiar narrative arc and the esoteric subject matter affords Queen of Katwe some liberty. Chess is not necessarily the most cinematic of activities, after all. As fascinating as it can be to play and to watch, for those so inclined, it lacks the visceral thrill of more physical pursuits. It is hard enough to convey the impact of moving a piece of wood over the surface of a checkered board, and the various moves and strategies can become so complex that it is difficult to explain them and maintain momentum.

Queen of Katwe understands this. The film wisely avoids over-explaining the logic of its central game. It also avoids the awkwardness of counting on the chess moves themselves for suspense. Indeed, Queen of Katwe often seems to accept that the audience watching the film have little investment in the particulars or mechanics of Phiona’s game. At one point during the climax, Phiona’s mother keenly watches the young prodigy play, only to ask, “What is happening?” Phiona’s younger brother responds, “She is winning.” That is all that the audience needs to know.

David Oyelowo is Robert Katende and Madina Nalwanga is Phiona Mutesi in Disney's QUEEN OF KATWE, the vibrant true story of a young girl from the streets of rural Uganda whose world rapidly changes when she is introduced to the game of chess.

Instead of focusing on the mechanics of the game, Queen of Katwe instead focuses on the characters themselves; both those playing and those observing. The moves on the board feel almost incidental, the movie wisely trusting its performers to convey a sense of what is actually happening. It is a very clever way of rendering chess cinematic, one that allows the audience to invest in the reactions of the characters rather than the movement on the board. It conveys the tone of what is happening in a way that even somebody who has never played the game can understand.

The casting helps. Queen of Katwe has a wonderfully charming ensemble, but benefits from three fantastic leads. David Oyelowo is great as Robert Katende, the former football player turned enthusiastic chess coach, the engineer without a family name who is trying to make life better for the slum children of Katwe. Lupita Nyong’o is even better as Nakku Harriet, Phiona’s mother who finds herself dreaming of a better life for her children even as she is wary of what exactly that might mean. Madina Nalwanga makes an impressive debut as Phiona.

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As with most sporting underdog stories, there is a strong sense of class running through Queen of Katwe. Phiona comes from the slums, and finds herself playing a game associated with the educated elite. Early in the film, Robert conspires to bring his children to the illustrious King’s College for a tournament. The movie underscores just how unpleasant this trip is for them, from the condescending and patronising introduction afforded by Mister Barumba of the Ugandan Chess Federation to the quick shot of an upper-class character wiping his hand after shaking hands with Fiona.

Mira Nair’s direction very effectively underscores this point. When the children stay overnight in King’s College, Robert finds them panicking the following morning. As Robert works hard to rebuild morale, the camera pans around him. But it always comes back to focus on the double doors at the end of the dormitory. There is always a sense that these characters do not necessarily belong, one reflected as keenly in the framing and composition as it is in the dialogue.

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Class is not the only fascination of Queen of Katwe. The movie leans rather heavily on its chess metaphors, but always with a keen eye on its feminist subtext. “The queen is the most powerful piece,” we are told early in the film, in a statement both accurate and relevant. Indeed, the process of “queening” is given heavy thematic weight over the course of the movie. “When the little man makes it to the other side of the board, he becomes a queen.” It feels almost as though the movie is making a point.

There is something endearing about the earnestness with which Queen of Katwe treats its central game as a life metaphor. There are also a few moments when the film labours the point somewhat. Lamenting the life ahead of her in the slums, Phiona laments, “Where is my safe space?” Nevertheless, Queen of Katwe is very much engaged with the challenges that face women, particularly those of poorer backgrounds. Nakku is a single mother trying to protect her children, wary of the world out there waiting for her daughters, something the movie communicates clearly and effectively.

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Still, despite engaging with the realities of the life facing Nakku and Phiona, Queen of Katwe refuses to wallow in despair or darkness. It is an incredibly joyful film, one that is incredible to look at. For a film centring on the game of chess and unfolding primarily in the slums of Uganda, Queen of Katwe is a beautiful piece of work. Nair has an eye for framing and composition, particularly in dialogue-and-exposition-driven scenes. Nakku and Robert argue about Fiona’s future in a striking lumber yard; Robert and Fiona play chess at the edge of a busy lake.

Queen of Katwe is a pleasure from beginning to end, an artful execution even if the endgame is never in doubt.

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4 Responses

  1. From what you say here, it’s too bad the film is doing so badly at the box office having only grossed seven million dollars to a fifteen million dollar budget. I can’t say I am surprise though Chess movies often struggle to do well, such as Searching for Bobby Fischer. Also, movies about Africa often struggle to do well. I really liked The Long Walk to Freedom with Idris Elba, but that was a a flop too. Combining those two elements would then assure limited box office success.

    • Yep. It’s a shame. It’s a really nice little film. And it’s noting that I still think that after a four-hour round trip to catch the screening, which you think would have taken some of the shine off. But it’s one of the best films I’ve seen in a while.

      Probably since The Girl With All the Gifts.

  2. Great review and I concur with your comments. This is a beautifully filmed, original and inspiring tale of triumph over adversity; well done Disney. Even though it is a bit heavy with the metaphors, the acting is wonderfull.

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