As a Westerner who has never visited, my mental images of sub-Saharan Africa have often included savannas filled with wildlife, violent rebel groups, and historic oppression in the Belgian Congo. I’m well aware that this perspective is horribly blinkered (recently, I’ve become particularly interested in learning more about the history of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, a group about which I knew exactly nothing before this year), but such concepts are the stuff of most news reports circulated throughout Western media. “Queen of Katwe,” set in modern Uganda, tells a very different tale indeed. Suffused with the distinctive beauty and tragedy interwoven throughout contemporary Ugandan culture, the film is on its face a rags-to-riches chess drama, but becomes much more through its willingness to raise provocative questions about the ways in which the “developing world” is often viewed.
“Queen of Katwe” is centrally the story of Phiona Mutesi (Madina Nalwanga), a young Ugandan chess prodigy with virtually no formal education, who succeeds through sheer genius and the efforts of a dedicated teacher (David Oyelowo, who is outstanding here). Rounding out the cast, Lupita Nyong’o turns in a solid performance as Phiona’s mother (though her character in the film feels more incidental than integral to the plot).
“Queen of Katwe” is a much, much more interesting chess film than last year’s “Pawn Sacrifice” – particularly since its narrative will likely be completely unknown to most audiences, and outcomes never feel like foregone conclusions. And as one might well expect, the movie drives home powerfully the message that rare talent can indeed be found in unexpected places. The Western viewer is thus left wondering, sober-mindedly, how many, many geniuses with the talent to transform history are undoubtedly present in the “developing world”…if only the rest of the world had eyes to see them. In an era where education and competence are increasingly assessed by ever-narrower evaluative measures, “Queen of Katwe” has the courage to upend that narrative, celebrating those who think and act “outside the box.” (As a matter of storytelling, also helps that Phiona’s inspirational journey is juxtaposed against some extremely grim thematic undercurrents, of the sort rarely seen in PG-rated films, which give the movie’s dramatic moments an uncommonly deep bite).
I’d be remiss in my critical duty if I didn’t point out that “Queen of Katwe” has some serious third-act problems—most notably a murky denouement that doesn’t have a clear climax. There are also some serious sags in the pacing that feel frustratingly digressive (a full 30 minutes of content could’ve probably been cut without compromising the storytelling). In short, “Queen of Katwe” could’ve done with some more severe editing.
That being said, “Queen of Katwe” is both engrossing and thought-provoking – and well worth a trip to the cinema, if it’s playing in your area. Recommended.
A strikingly engaging and original, if occasionally overambitious, chess drama.
Normalized Score: 3.4