There’s so much that Mira Nair got right in Queen of Katwe that it’s a shame it’s not a total success.
Stories don’t come more uplifting that than of Phiona Mutesi, subject of Mira Nair’s new film Queen of Katwe. Growing up fatherless in the slums of Katwe, a region within Uganda’s capital of Kampala, Phiona had to leave school at a young age to help support her family. She was initially drawn to the Sports Outreach Ministry, at the age of nine, because she heard that they gave away free porridge. There, she was introduced to chess and discovered that she had a natural talent for the game. She became the national junior champion, beating players from far more privileged backgrounds and representing Uganda successfully in several international tournaments. Her success in chess also paved the way for her to return to school and to provide a better life for her mother and siblings.
This is a story custom-made for a Disney film, and there’s so much that Mira Nair got right in Queen of Katwe that it’s a shame it’s not a total success. Nair’s direction, with cinematography by Sean Bobbitt, takes you right into the heart of Katwe, from the crowded streets where Fiona and her siblings sell maize to the tiny shack where they live. The cast is outstanding, including newcomer Madina Nalwanga as Phiona, Lupita Nyong’o as her mother, and David Oyelowo as Robert Katende, the engineer and church outreach worker who taught her chess. Unlike many similar films, Queen of Katwe does not use a white character as an audience surrogate to interpret and explain Phiona’s story. Queen of Katwe also hits all the necessary beats of the inspirational sports drama and concludes with a crowning moment of awesome in which the actors appear on screen with the real people they portrayed. So that’s the good news.
The bad news is this: William Wheeler’s screenplay (based on a book by Tim Crothers) seems determined to cram as many events and complications as possible into its 124 minutes, testing the patience of even the most receptive audience member. It feels even longer than it is, in large part because Wheeler failed to shape his surfeit of material into a well-made script, and well-made is exactly what is called for in this case—sports movies usually adhere closely to a time-honored template because that template works. In place of a well-shaped story arc, Queen of Katwe gives you a series of incidents, as if Wheeler’s model were those old one-reeler melodramas that place the heroine in repeated peril in order to keep the audience interested in her story. A little selection and trimming would have gone a long way toward making this a better film.
Still, a disappointing screenplay is not enough to kill Queen of Katwe, which is not so much a bad film as one that is disappointing, because it could have been so much better. It’s not every day that you get to see a story about African people told from their viewpoint, for one thing. It’s also rare to see such frank depiction of the really hard choices many people have to make just to survive, and it’s always good to be reminded that many children in the world can’t count on things we take for granted, like food, shelter, and education. Finally, Nair is the ideal person to tell this story—she has a talent for capturing and communicating the cultural specifics of a location and a story, and she knows Uganda well, as she owns a home in Kampala and conducts an annual workshop for filmmakers there. | Sarah Boslaugh