Chess drama ‘Queen of Katwe’ provides familiar inspiration

Queen of Katwe still meticulously follows the beats of the inspirational sports movie.

Three stars

Queen of Katwe Madina Nalwanga, David Oyelowo, Lupita Nyong’o. Directed by Mira Nair. Rated PG. Opens Friday in select theaters.

It may be about the more cerebral pursuit of chess rather than something like football or hockey, but Disney’s family-friendly drama Queen of Katwe still meticulously follows the beats of the inspirational sports movie. Based on the true story of Ugandan chess champion Phiona Mutesi (and journalist Tim Crothers’ book about her), Queen starts in the slums of Katwe outside Ugandan capital Kampala, where missionary Robert Katende (David Oyelowo) decides to teach some of the local children to play chess. Too poor to go to school, nine-year-old Phiona (newcomer Madina Nalwanga) spends most of her days selling maize on the street to help support her family, and she’s drawn to chess mainly by the free meal that Robert offers.

Shortly, however, she becomes the best player in the group that Robert dubs the Pioneers, surprising even her coach with her level of instinctive skill (she still doesn’t know how to read). Soon she’s playing private-school students in local tournaments, then ascending to national and international competitions, all while her family (including her mother Harriet, played by Oscar-winner Lupita Nyong’o) struggles to afford basic food and shelter.

The tension between Phiona’s impoverished home life and increasingly glamorous career as a chess prodigy provides the movie’s most rewarding drama, and its greatest insight into Phiona’s world. This is an all-ages Disney movie, but it doesn’t shy away from the extreme poverty of Phiona’s community or the dangers of everyday life there. Director Mira Nair and screenwriter William Wheeler spend just as much time showing the joy of the community, though, the way that Phiona’s neighbors pull together to support her as she wins bigger and bigger tournaments. Ultimately, Queen is a feel-good movie, but it never feels like the filmmakers are hiding anything.

The performances from Nalwanga, Oyelowo and Nyong’o help balance out some of the more blatant underdog-sports clichés, although the movie drags as it heads toward the two-hour mark and the obvious triumphant moment for Phiona following a major setback. Still, by shining a light on a location and a community rarely seen in mainstream movies, Queen offers a pleasant variation on a comfortable formula.

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