The story moves in familiar ways. With few exceptions, most moviegoers will be able to tick off the main narrative beats of Queen of Katwe in advance. The young, beset heroine Phiona Mutesi (newcomer Madina Nalwanga) finds some respite from the burdens of her hardscrabble life when she happens upon a group engaged in a competitive pursuit. Originally viewed by her new cohorts as a irritating neophyte, she quickly proves to be a prodigy, approaching the game she’s taken up with uncommon insight and sparkling inspiration. There will be highs. There will be lows. But surely there will be triumph in the end. Were there any doubts about this, they are quelled in the opening moments of the film, when synergistic corporate partners in manufacturing inspiration Disney and ESPN are each given their due as co-conspirators in the creation of the film.
Much as the film’s mechanics may sharpen the knives of criticism, Queen of Katwe mostly demonstrates that sometimes moves are familiar because, when used correctly, they prove to be winning. In the case of this film, the road to graceful deliverance from ill challenges is paved with chess pieces. Slipping away from her duties selling maize in the congested, dirty streets in the Ugandan slums, Phiona discovers a youth chess club taught by Robert Katende (David Oyelowo), an engineer by schooling and an empathetic mentor by temperament. Robert guides Phiona, but soon finds she’s lapping him. He works to bring the girl, along with many of her fellow students, into the comparative privilege of competitive chess.
Based on reporting (first in ESPN The Magazine and later in a book) by Tim Crothers, William Wheeler’s screenplay is strikingly thorough, tracking Phiona’s journey expansively, like it’s raking in all the pieces at once. If that makes the film longer than seems immediately advisable — the running time crosses just past the two-hour mark — it also develops a fullness that imbues veracity on details that would otherwise feel like tropes. Director Mira Nair is equally committed to a riveting realness, particularly in the rendering of the class divide that weighs on the characters. In surveying the squalor of the impoverished community, the film operates with an attentiveness shorn of pity or sensation that recalls the documentary Born into Brothels.
Mutesi is smartly guileless in the lead role. The real richness in the film, though, comes from the actors with a little more experience. Lupita Nyong’o is quietly powerful and intricately crafty as Phiona’s mother. And Oyelowo shows what a skilled actor can do with a thin part, signaling the conflicts and healing sense of purpose that drives the chess coach. The couple of scenes that the performers have together are electric, hinting at a better alternate timeline within which they are the first choice onscreen pairing of every studio for every film that could benefit from a brilliantly intermingling charisma. (It’s almost startling to realize this is the first film Nyong’o has been in since earning her Academy Award that doesn’t bury her in a blob of CGI.) Until that epiphany arrives for the showbiz powers that be, Queen of Katwe is no consolation prize. On its own terms, it’s a champ.