'Queen of Katwe': Inspiring, Disneyfied account of a Ugandan teen who went from the slums to the World Chess Olympiads

The inspirational drama - now, that's a terrifying genre.

Filled to the brim with so much soft, cloying mush, films released under that banner are liable to kill you with a saccharine overdose.

Not so Disney's surprisingly robust Queen of Katwe, a live-action family drama that tells the true story of Phiona Mutesi, an illiterate Ugandan teen born in abject poverty, who managed within a few short years to become a world-class chess player.

Based on American journalist Tim Crother's best-seller, Queen of Katwe is the latest film by the remarkable Mira Nair, the Oscar-nominated director of Mississippi Masala, The Namesake, and Monsoon Wedding.

The picture was shot on location in Katwe, one the most impoverished slums in the Ugandan capital city, Kampala, and makes a good-faith effort to provide a truthful account of life in Phiona's world.

The unlikely young grand master, portrayed by newcomer Madina Nalwanga in a remarkably restrained and implosive performance, grew up in a 10-by-10-foot room with a dirt floor and a corrugated tin roof. She shared the humble space with her three siblings and their widowed mother (played by Oscar-winner Lupita Nyong'o).

Phiona dropped out of school at 9 so she could work full time selling corn to passing drivers in the nearby streets.

Two years later, she was fished from those streets by Robert Katende, an engineer who grew up an orphan in Katwe and had returned to establish a sports program and a chess club for the kids as part of a church outreach program.

David Oyelowo (Selma, Captive) is masterful as Katende, a reserved, introspective man who has trouble containing his emotions as he shares in the triumphs and miseries of his students.

Queen of Katwe follows five years in the impossible lives of Phiona, her family, and her friends in a quarter where fresh water is scarce and raw sewage rampant, and where residents are forever at the mercy of unscrupulous landlords, pimps, and criminals.

Ultimately, Queen of Katwe fosters a belief in the triumph of merit and talent. And that message is definitely applicable - to Western kids.

But this terrific film and its inspirational message have been filtered through an individualistic, American point of view, suggesting that anyone can make a better life for themselves if they are willing to work. And that's not the case everywhere.

To her credit, Nair shows that Phiona's achievements have the potential to inspire change in her community. The director ends the film with information about the ways in which Phiona, her family, and her chess club have helped establish educational opportunities for other kids in Katwe.

What about the large-scale, systemic problems that lead to corruption, inequality, and injustice in countries like Uganda?

Nair's film doesn't attempt to answer that. But I am grateful that a mainstream family film like Queen of Katwe can inspire one to ask bigger questions.

tirdad@phillynews.com

215-854-2736


MOVIE REVIEW

Queen of Katwe

*** (Out of four stars)

Directed by Mira Nair. With Madina Nalwanga, David Oyelowo, Lupita Nyong'o, Taryn Kyaze. Distributed by Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures International.

Running time: 2 hours, 4 mins.

Parent's guide: PG (thematic elements, an accident scene, and some suggestive material).

Playing at: Area theaters.

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