Starring: Lupita Nyong’o, David Oyelowo, Madina Nalwanga etc.
Dir by Mira Nair.
Once upon a time, there was the Disney princess: Blonde, blue-eyed, and not particularly bright. That princess has now been upstaged by a pauper–a 10-year-old chess prodigy from the slums of Kampala, who has checkmated that Disney trope with the finesse with which she topples kings on the chessboard.
That is the premise of Mira Nair’s latest project, Queen of Katwe, which had its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF). Her previous ventures into large studio filmmaking, like Vanity Fair or Amelia, may have fizzled, but she’s found froth in this delightful tale, based on the actual Phiona Mutesi’s journey from seller of maize to master of chess.
Yikes, yet another inspiring sports saga? You may well yowl. But Nair takes that cliche and crafts a flick that clicks.
As in Salaam Bombay, Nair does well in this setting, creating a stage on which these slum kids can thrive.
Newcomer Madina Nalwanga plays Phiona, and creates a character that’s not just winning at chess but quite winsome. David Oyelowo is Robert, the evangelical minister who introduces a group of children from the slums of Katwe to chess, and coaches them to competitive success. His is a fairly unidimensional personality, at least in the film. Counterpointing that is the complexity of Harriet, Phiona’s single mother (Oscar winner Lupita Nyong’o), who at first is angry over her daughter choosing chess over chores, but eventually becomes her champion.
Before the end credits roll, there are plenty of life lessons conveyed through dialogue that rings true, though at times it’s trite. Within that melange of metaphors is this line: “In chess, the small one can become the big one.” That, of course, refers to queening—a pawn traversing the board to morph into a queen.
As we have seen with Salaam Bombay, Nair does well in this setting, creating a stage on which these slum kids can thrive. In a sense, this is a homecoming for Nair and as with her films with an Indian backdrop (Monsoon Wedding), she is canny at exploring an ambience she relates to. Uganda is where she spends much time due to family ties and where she has established Maisha Film Lab, a centre that trains filmmaking talent in East Africa.
Nair could well have identified with the missionary zeal exhibited by Robert as he takes his young pupils on board. That sense of empathy is partnered by childlike exuberance. The ensemble of children surrounding Phiona offers a meaningful message—that even they can break on through to the other side—as they face off against Kampala’s privileged children, who don pristine whites for cricket on the manicured grounds of their private schools, and emerge, if not always victorious, unvanquished. And that’s what provides Queen of Katwe with its crown of victory.