QUEEN OF KATWE: Disney, director Mira Nair, and an A-list cast of color deliver an inspiring true story out of Africa

QUEEN OF KATWE may have flown under your radar up until now, but it’s time to find out why you should see this new release. When a woman who has directed such successful indie classics as Salaam Bombay!, Mississippi Masala, Vanity Fair, and The Namesake, makes a movie for Disney, fans of both Mouse House live action flicks and gorgeously filmed, sophisticated cinema should stand up and take notice. Director Mira Nair chose to tell a story that takes place in Uganda, the country she’s called home for over 27 years, and where she founded a film school for East Africans.  Several of the hottest actors, Oscar winner Lupita Nyong’o (12 Years a Slave, Star Wars A Force Awakens) and critic darling David Oyelowo (Selma) signed on to co-star, and that should say something of their enthusiasm for the project.  Is your curiosity piqued?  It should be.

The film is based on the true story of Phiona Mutesi (newcomer Madina Nalwanga), a young chess prodigy who came to the game through working with civil engineer turned chess club coach Robert Katende in Katwe, the poorest slum of Uganda’s capital city, Kampala. Phiona lives with her mother, widowed Harriet (Lupita Nyong’o) who struggles to feed and support her family through hard physical labor.  Nine year old Phiona herself spends her days, not in school, but selling vegetables to help feed herself and her siblings. Over the next few years, Katende teaches her and other students, and she becomes one of the top chess players in the country.  As an illiterate, growing young woman, how can Phiona make a better life for herself?  How can Katende help her do so, and how will her mother Harriet find a way to embrace change and trust in the hope of a better future?

Both Nyong’o and Oyelowo are fully capable of bringing the intensity and authenticity to their roles representing inspiring real-life characters, and once again show why they are two of the top actors being hired today. Newcomer Madina Nalwanga warms to her role a bit slowly, but eventually nearly meets Oyelowo and Nyong’o as an acting equal, which is no small feat. English is her second language, and she literally had never acted before landing on set for this major feature film.

The story itself, as it is presented through the script, is build into something rather formulaic, always dipping only slightly into the darkness and despair the people in this story clearly must have suffered as they grew and risked themselves in their struggle towards a better life. On the other hand, Queen of Katwe is so beautifully filmed, shot for shot, scene for scene, it is like watching art made into action.  The audience gets to see aspects of Africa as a continent, and Uganda in specific, that show its color and beauty in full measure.  It also presents a real-life family in their experience, working trapped in poverty, but showing pride, honor, and grace.

I can’t say it reaches the level of poignancy and depth one of my favorites of the year, Dark Horse, also based on a true story about young chess champions shepherded by a passionate teacher.  It bears more than a passing resemblance to that film, which was also released in 2016, albeit by coincidence of timing.  Suffice to say, one could easily have a double feature about plucky downtrodden kids from the worst circumstances, that through chess, rise up and gain self confidence and a way out of a dark, hopeless future.

Dark Horse is independent to the degree that its budget was under three million dollars.  However, as Queen of Katwe was made by Walt Disney Studios for an estimated fifteen million, it also qualifies as having a comparatively small budget.  However, is being promoted and pushed by the studio enough that it actually has the potential to do well at the box office.  It should.  Even with its erring to the positive, it’s a inspirational story of triumph, filmed absolutely beautifully, directed by a woman, and almost exclusively featuring people of color.  We could use a few more of those coming out of Hollywood.