Disney's "Queen Of Katwe" Transcends Studio's Sports Movie Model

In a time when the world’s top competitors impart would-be inspiration almost exclusively via stale sound bites and banal coach-speak, chess movie “Queen Of Katwe” strikes like a lightning bolt of motivation. Based on the true story of Ugandan teen Phiona Mutesi and her improbable rise from primary school dropout to chess master, the indisputably inspirational film shows instead of tells. It also does two things that border on the miraculous.

Firstly, it’s an underdog story that’s actually about an underdog. Nearly all so-called classic sports movies are about white men beating the odds, as if white men have spent the past few centuries working from behind. Secondly, the picture rebuffs the sugary ESPN-ification of the sports world, working hard for its inevitable clichés instead of the other way around. The remarkable part is that it is an ESPN film, co-produced by the network and its parent company The Walt Disney Company, who has a spotty history of its own with sports movies. But instead of another “Million Dollar Arm,” moviegoers have one of the most heartening films of 2016.

Newcomer Madina Nalwanga is effortlessly charming as the aforementioned Phiona. The film, directed by Mira Nair (“Monsoon Wedding”), has the unenviable task of aging its adolescent protagonist from 11 to 15. Through a combination of creative hair styling and an actress who seems utterly unaware of how good she is, Phiona and these five years in her life are never less than convincing, from her time in the slums of Kampala all the way to Chess Olympiad glory.

Lupita Nyong’o (“12 Years A Slave”) co-stars as Phiona’s mom Nikki, a single mother of four struggling to keep a roof over her children’s heads. It’s a shockingly understated role for an Oscar-winner, explicating the actress’ meteoric rise as a function of both talent and selflessness. Nikki is a small but crucial player here, and having a performer of Nyong’o’s pedigree is a coup for the project.

But that’s not all. Thespian David Oyelowo (“Selma”) is as likable as likable gets in the role of Robert Katende, former footballer and mentor to Phiona. When a wandering Phiona stumbles across Robert’s Sports Ministry Outreach program, their fates are instantly, interminably intertwined; this struggling family man will coach up this young, illiterate girl into one of the continent’s premier female chess players. Oyelowo is a joy every step of the way, embodying all of the conflicting emotions that must come with residing in a poverty-stricken, war-torn region inhabited by so many wonderful, talented, underestimated people.

The screenplay spends about twenty-five minutes on each of its five years, mostly unfurling Phiona’s story chronologically, somehow becoming more compelling as it rolls along. The chess scenes – whether featuring our heroine playing against herself with bottle caps or facing down a buttoned-up private schoolers – are neither dense nor slight, proving accessible to all. The characters remain the main attraction, but enough attention is paid to the game itself to ensure that chess enthusiasts get their fill.

Such a chess-heavy story could have easily ended up a muddle of “chess as a metaphor for life” platitudes. But as adapted by William Wheeler – from Tim Crother’s book of the same name – the script accentuates its clichés with well-rounded characters and real-life heartbreak, carrying it high above its Disney sports movie relatives. (It inevitably shares DNA with both “The Mighty Ducks” and “Cool Runnings,” handily outdoing both in craft and emotional resonance.)

A great Afropop soundtrack and an exultant set of end credits are but bows on top, skillfully tying the film to the events and people it’s based on.

It’s harder than ever to make a sports movie that isn’t like every one before it. Mira Nair and company have done just that – a rousing one, to boot. It might not be as impressive a feat as that of the real Phiona Mutesi, but it’s obligatory viewing for children of all ages everywhere, nonetheless.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★★★ out of ★★★★★ (Very Good)

Release Date: September 23, 2016 (Limited)
Studio: Walt Disney Pictures, ESPN Films
Director: Mira Nair
Screenwriter: William Wheeler
Starring: David Oyelowo, Lupita Nyong’o, Madina Nalwanga
MPAA Rating: PG (for thematic elements, an accident scene and some suggestive material)