In theaters September 30 (with limited release September 23) is “Queen of Katwe,” a coming-of-age film that, despite a big name distributor and Academy Award-winning leads, is characterized by authenticity and sincerity.
“Queen of Katwe” stars David Oyelowo, Lupita Nyong’o and Madina Nalwanga, and is set in Katwe, a district of the Ugandan capital, Kampala. Nalwanga is Phiona Mutesi, a young girl who becomes a chess champion in the face of countless obstacles with the help of her coach, Robert Katende (Oyelowo), her mother, Harriet (Nyong’o) and the other children of Katwe. The film follows Phiona over the course of five years, from 2007 to 2012, and presents a vivid portrayal of her adolescence selling maize on the street, taking care of her brothers and challenging much older competitors in chess.
While chess championships may not be a regular program on ESPN, “Queen of Katwe” is as riveting a sports movie as one about football or baseball. Early on in the film, Robert instructs a group of children in the game by asking them how they plan and strategize their own lives in the slums. Harriet sacrifices to buy paraffin so that Phiona can read strategy late into the night. The pain of Phiona’s rare losses are felt by her village as much as the jubilation of her victories.
One of the movie’s most remarkable feats is its apparent authenticity. While many movies “based on a true story” diverge from reality, “Queen of Katwe” takes little artistic liberty. Part of the sincerity of the film rises from the fact that many involved in the making of it are from Uganda. The director, Mira Nair, has lived in Kampala for 27 years and founded a film school there for East African students. Madina Nalwanga grew up in Kampala selling corn, just like her character Phiona.
“Phiona’s story is like my story,” Madina says. “Her background is like my background, but for her it was chess that changed everything and for me it was dancing and singing.”
Finally, the shooting locations of the film often overlap with the venues of the actual events.
“Katwe is the visual heart of the film,” explains director of photography Sean Bobbitt. “As a news and documentary cameraman, I’ve been faced with drab poverty in slums all over the world, but Katwe is different. There is vibrancy there, a density of color and a unique pallet. The contrast of the red earth with the yellows and blues they use to paint the buildings, the density of humanity, the bright elements of clothing, the constant movement. Everywhere we pointed the camera, there was something of beauty.”
“Queen of Katwe” is overall worth seeing. It is visually interesting and emotionally authentic. While the movie drags in the middle (the film clocks in a little over two hours), it finds its way in the last act and manages a tidy conclusion. While it may be an unconventional sports movie, “Queen of Katwe” does justice to the stories of the people it portrays and is a bright spot in the end-of-summer movie lull.