Tronc Newspapers Critic
A lot of Disney's fact-based sports movies stir the blood or, at the very least, satisfy our need for rousing underdog stories. Often the stories can be shaped so that a white protagonist runs the show, even if it's not really their show. "Million Dollar Arm" was like that; so was "McFarland, USA," both of which I liked -- despite the key characters, the competitors, being marginalized in their own narratives so that Jon Hamm and Kevin Costner could dominate the posters.
"Queen of Katwe" is different and, not incidentally, it's really good. "Monsoon Wedding" director Mira Nair found a terrific real-life subject: the young Ugandan chess phenom Phiona Mutesi, who at age 11 became Uganda's junior champion. In 2009, she traveled to the International Children's Chess Tournament in Sudan and went on to compete in the World Chess Olympiad in Siberia. She came from very, very little, growing up in the Katwe slums a few miles south of the Ugandan capital, Kampala, on the shores of Lake Victoria.
The facts scream "movie!" Quite by accident Phiona was just 9 when she met Robert Katende, a war refugee, soccer player and Christian missionary with the Sports Outreach ministry. He founded an informal chess club. A free meal got the kids interested; for some, the game itself (for which there is no word in the Luganda language) proved seductive and a life-saver.
The script of "Queen of Katwe" written by William Wheeler follows familiar and even predictable contours, and you can sometimes sense when the shortcuts and watered-down bits make their move. The soul-crushing poverty is more soul-crinkling in this PG-rated Disney enterprise, produced in association with ESPN Films.
But here's where a sharp director and wonderful actors come in handy. Nair, based in New York, has also lived in Kampala for decades. She knows the area, and she and her superb cinematographer Sean Bobbitt ("12 Years a Slave") make the Katwe streets and bustle come alive. The images are vibrant and flowing, braking just this side of prettiness at the expense of honesty. Well, sometimes the brakes don't work, and we're hustled through some of the setbacks and harshest facts of Katwe life. To be clear: This is a fictionalized biopic, not a documentary. In that respect, in other words, it's in line with every other sports biopic.
Phiona's mother, Harriet, is played by Lupita Nyong'o. This is the actress' first live-action, non-CGI, non-voice-characterization role since her Oscar-winning supporting turn in "12 Years a Slave." She's a rock and a survivor, but because Nyong'o is so shrewd in hitting two or three emotional notes in a single gesture, or look, we feel like we're getting a full picture of one woman's circumstances, even though "Queen of Katwe" steers its story away from Harriet for a fair portion of its running time.
David Oyelowo, lately in "Selma" as Martin Luther King Jr., receives top billing as Phiona's coach and mentor, Katende. Newcomer Madina Nalwanga takes the part of Phiona, whom we meet at a tense moment before a big match in 2011, before heading back in time four years to let her story establish its dramatic bona fides.
Nalwanga is extremely effective and naturally ebullient, and watching her in "Queen of Katwe" you see her learning how to deal with the camera, and the demands of the role, from Oyelowo and Nyong'o. Honestly: Has a fledgling performer ever had better luck with inaugural co-stars?
There are so many traps successfully avoided in this movie. With less astute and light-fingered portrayals, Katende might've been a cardboard saint, and Harriet a cardboard obstacle to her daughter's dreams. As it plays out, director Nair shifts focus among all three major players easily and well. And Phiona's story really is inspiring.
In the 2011 ESPN magazine feature by Tim Crothers, whose book on Phiona Mutesi got Disney's interest, one of Phiona's fellow chess players is quoted as saying: "When you play against her, it feels like she's always pushing you backward until you have nowhere to move." Nair's film, her best in a long time, is hardly the first to use a chessboard as a symbol of one life's struggles. It is, however, one of the best.
MPAA rating: PG (for thematic elements, an accident scene, and some suggestive material).
Running time: 2:04