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Queen of Katwe - Cinemaholic Movie Reviews
one person's obsessive addiction to film
Queen of Katwe
Directing: B+
Acting: B+
Writing: B+
Cinematography: B
Editing: B+

There's something both peculiar and unusual about Queen of Katwe, in that it's got the recognizable "family entertainment" tone and type of storytelling of Walt Disney Pictures -- but this time, it happens to be about a young female chess prodigy in Uganda. And let's be honest, Disney isn't historically known for branching out in this way with movies typically aimed at Middle America. I think I saw one white actor in the entire production, and he was an extra. Given whose story this is, I consider that a definitively good thing. Hannah Montana, this is not.

This, in fact, is based on a true story. The end credits begin with a wonderful sequence of all the principal actors standing with the real-life characters they played. And by that point, you've experienced a wide range of emotions, albeit none of them too challenging: young Phiona (newcomer Madina Nalwanga) will certainly charm you; the poverty of her family will not.

Directed by Mira Nair (Monsoon Wedding, The Namesake), Queen of Katwe gives as accurate a look at that poverty as a family-friendly film can without getting too gritty. Nair and Disney is an interesting combination. It necessitates a certain restraint some of her other films didn't possess, but it works. Best of all, it's a movie that gives audiences a young black girl to root for as a hero. There must have been unique pressures when it comes to so many levels of unusual representation in mainstream cinema, but Nair juggles them well. It'll make you hope that Disney offers us more such unique stories from around the world.

I certainly didn't know anything about this, so, fictionalized or not, I'm grateful to have seen and heard the story. How many average Americans even know what Katwe is? As it happens, it's a neighborhood in Uganda's capital city of Kampala, and it's where Phiona lives, with her rebellious older sister; her chess-playing brother and another little brother, and their widowed mother, Nakku Harriet (Lupita Nyong'o). They share a small shack of a house and make their living by selling maize to people stuck in their cars in traffic. But when Phiona follows her brother to his chess club, the teacher (David Oyelowo) invites her to play and has another little girl teach her the rules. Phiona quickly reveals herself to be a prodigy, and the teacher brings her along with the group to successive chess tournaments.

It's really not much more complicated than that. It's the story of a Ugandan girl who lifted herself out of poverty on the strength of her gifts. She is taken to national and international-eval tournaments, first traveling a thousand miles away in Africa and at one point even traveling to Russia. Phiona's struggles come from self-doubt: she keeps thinking boys she defeated let her win, because she can't imagine being better than them. Until she can, and she gets a little bit of an attitude. She isn't perfect, but she still proves to be an inspiration. This is just one reason among many that this movie should be seen. Phiona is a role model for young girls especially, but really for anyone.

Queen of Katwe is still very much a Hollywood-lite retelling of Phiona's story, but in a way that's also what's great about it. Everything about how this story is told, how it unfolds, the calculated "warmth" of the script, is conventional -- the way we are told this story feels very familiar. But the subject of the story is anything but. Sure, plenty of movies have been made about chess players. But none about one who is a young black girl from the middle of Africa, who lives in a world that could not be more different from that of the movie's target audience. Never once does William Wheeler's screenplay (based on an ESPN Magazine article and book by Tim Crothers) get preachy, but it has the potential to open minds.

It's also just a straightforward, lovely, sometimes heartbreaking but ultimately heartwarming story. No doubt it oversimplifies the complexities of Phiona's life, but that's beside the point. Too much of the output at modern American cineplexes is just the same crap over and over again. This is something that sets itself apart, in all the best ways.

David Oyelowo and Madina Nalwanga problem solve in QUEEN OF KATWE.

Overall: B+
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