Queen of Katwe is a feel-good movie, typical of what we’ve come to expect from a Disney sports drama based on a true story. The “drama” is a bit limited considering the sport is chess. But the story itself is interesting and inspiring, and delivers a good message for girls and boys – and adults as well – about discipline, mental toughness, and overcoming adversity. The movie is based on an ESPN article and book about Phiona Mutesi (Madina Nalwanga), a young girl from the slums of Katwe, Uganda who beat the odds to become an international chess champion.
David Oyelowo (“oh-yellow-oh”), who shined as MLK in the under-appreciated 2014 movie Selma, plays Phiona’s mentor Robert Katende. He inspires Phiona and other under-privileged children in Katwe to look beyond their present circumstances and view chess as a metaphor for life, where you have the opportunity to “reset the pieces and play again.” The dialogue borders on cheesy once in a while, but this is a sports drama – so that means a pep talk or two from the coach is to be expected if not required. There’s only so much pep-talking you can do from the sidelines of a game that features two players staring quietly and intently at a board lined with queens, kings, rooks, knights, bishops and pawns. Personally, I don’t get the appeal. But I still liked the movie well enough. It’s not an instant sports classic, and it’s definitely too long. But it does benefit from a solid supporting cast that includes some talented youngsters who provide the comic relief as Phiona’s teammates, and from Oscar-winner Lupita Nyong’o (12 Years a Slave) as a single mother struggling to provide for Phiona and her siblings.
Ironically, Queen of Katwe is not the only chess movie I’ve seen this year, despite knowing (and caring) nothing about the game. The other was an indie from New Zealand called The Dark Horse that was also based on a true story. That one is about a chess champion with Bipolar Disorder who finds new purpose teaching chess to a group of underprivileged kids and taking them to the national championships. The Dark Horse is much better from a drama perspective, but Queen is more mainstream and kid-friendly. Anyway, go figure. Two heartwarming movies in one year – about chess. Check-mate!
Note: Queen of Katwe takes place between 2007-2012, so it’s recent history involving people who are still very much alive and not much older than the actors portraying them. Stick around for the end credits for a fun twist on the obligatory ‘where are they now’ images and updates.