Mira Nair’s Queen of Katwe is a true-life tale transformed into an inspirational fable. That’s not novel for the movies, but in this director’s hands, the results are mostly enchanting. The film follows Phiona Mutesi (Madina Nalwanga), an impoverished Ugandan girl who became a chess champion at the age of 10, and the part-time soccer coach who helped her get there. You don't come to a movie like this expecting complexity, depth or even subtlety. But Nair brings both simplicity and verve, and in relating this charming story, she knows to portray joy and heartbreak as parts of a human continuum.
Phiona lives with her mother, Harriet (Lupita Nyong’o), and siblings in a crowded Kampala slum, selling maize on the street to eke out a living. She wanders into a chess club led by Robert Katende (David Oyelowo), an out-of-work engineer and church soccer coach, who has started to teach the game to kids who can’t cut it at sports. Robert sees chess as an equalizing, transformative force, a strategic endeavor that can give power to the powerless and upend social structures; he initially sells it to a couple of skeptical kids with the promise that they can use it “to beat city boys.”
Seeing Phiona fight other kids who are making fun of her, Robert invites her to join: “Welcome. This is a place for fighters,” he tells her with a smile. Aspiration is always inspiration in underdog sports movies, where every game is a chance to show up the wealthy, the powerful, the privileged. That formula evidently extends to inspirational board-game movies, too — let’s not forget this year’s other chess drama, The Dark Horse, which followed a group of poor Maori kids in New Zealand as they struggled for a spot at the table.
Phiona quickly shows talent. She can see many moves ahead on the board, the sign of a budding grandmaster. The drama comes less from the girl’s attempts to excel at chess and more from her daily life — especially since her hard-working, long-suffering mother views both chess and Robert with some suspicion. Nyong’o gives impressive shading to a character who easily could have come across as a shrill obstacle. This is a woman in desperate circumstances: Her husband is dead, her eldest daughter has run off with a sleazy, motorcycle-riding boyfriend, and she’s deeply in debt. The script gives Harriet reasons, but the actress gives her soul. It’s amazing how much Nyong'o can suggest with a simple glance, or a gentle turn of the head.
It's here, in the depiction of Phiona and her family’s everyday struggles, that Nair really plays to her strengths. As she’s demonstrated in films like Salaam Bombay, Mississippi Masala and Monsoon Wedding, the director builds entire ecosystems around her characters — bustling worlds where joy, menace, duplicity and acceptance are often inextricably linked. The crowded streets where Phiona and her mother toil are home to both danger and wonder, vibrant colors and unspoken fears.
Desperate for paraffin, Harriet at one point dons an elaborate dress and heads to the store of a local shopkeeper, whom she gently seduces into buying the garment off her back. The man seems to want to buy her as well. Nair and Nyong’o dare to play the scene with humor and even sensuality, but they never lose the sense of peril — the idea that with one wrong move Harriet could wind up losing her independence, her dignity and possibly even more — even though the man she’s selling to seems mostly friendly.
There’s a proclamatory style to Queen of Katwe that could have backfired in lesser hands and resulted in didacticism. Characters regularly state outright their reasons, their feelings and even some of the film's broader themes. “Use your minds,” Robert says to his students, looking over a chessboard. “Follow your plans, and you will all find safe squares.” Later, looking at his newborn child, he mutters, “She must never have to dig, as I did.” And when Phiona has a crisis of confidence, she declares, “I sell maize. I know how to do that. This will never be my place.” Sometimes dialogue like this can be quite awkward. (“I am ready to offer you something that will make a big difference in your life,” a prospective employer helpfully announces to Robert.) But Nair’s immersive, energetic style, combined with her talented cast’s ability to invest even the most obvious lines with genuine feeling, gives Queen of Katwe a powerful clarity.