Set in the slums of Katwe in Kampala, the biographical sports drama chronicles the remarkable rags-to-riches story of Phiona Mutesi (played by Madina Nalwanga), who became one of the first female chess champions in Ugandan sports history, despite the odds. Her meteoric rise to glory from the slums, the family’s constant struggle with poverty and her coach’s unflinching belief in the chess prodigy, forms the story.
Mira Nair’s heart-wrenching film is reminiscent of Gabriele Muccino's The Pursuit of Happyness (2006), minus the urgency of events. Interestingly, unlike a standard sports biopic, this drama goes beyond the highs and lows of the game and studies its characters on a deeper humane level, giving some valuable life lessons and insights into their lives in the process. While evoking apathy by depicting extreme hardships, it also manages to uplift your spirit. Through her unpretentious story-telling, Nair not only makes you feel for the underprivileged and their daily fight for survival but also respect their resilience.
While the languid pace and lack of theatrics makes the director’s character study a tad tedious, some heartrending moments get etched in your mind forever. For instance, you are told why the slum kids in Katwe took to a lesser-known chess over football, at a time when it was perceived as gambling and not a sport. “Momma said we can’t break our bones as we don’t have the money for doctor, so we can’t play football,” tells a kid to coach Robert Katende (David Oyelowo). How he uses chess as an equalizer to eliminate prejudice between the rich and poor and instil self-confidence and hope in the underprivileged children, moves you to tears. Oyelowo is outstanding and so are the child artistes, including the protagonist.
Actress Lupita Nyong'o delivers a nuanced performance as Phiona’s hapless widowed mother, torn between her family’s needs and her daughter’s big dreams. Her restrained portrayal justifies the angst, guilt, hopelessness and cynicism of her troubled character, who is compelled to make her children sell maize at traffic signals.
Queen of Katwe is your quintessential triumph-of-the-underdog story – predictable, yet inspiring. It may unfold slowly just like a game of chess but stimulates your heart and mind, nonetheless.