Despite scenes showing a seedy underbelly to life in the slums, realistic portrayals of poverty, and some harrowing scenes involving a flood, Queen of Katwe is actually a Disney film. The cliched synopsis of an unremarkable girl with a remarkable gift who overcomes adversity sells the film short and implies this is a story that has been told before – indeed, you never doubt where the film is going. Except its Ugandan setting, all black cast, emphasis on class discourse, celebration of an underrepresented culture and community, and its focus on chess as a vehicle to create narrative tension all make Queen of Katwe really rather unique.
Lupita Nyong’o and David Oyelowo are two of the most reliably stellar performers in modern cinema. Nyong’o plays protagonist Phiona’s (newcomer Madina Nalwanga) steadfast and strong mother. Not always likable but always understandable, she is battle hardened and fiercely proud of who she is and what she has achieved. She is an exceptional character played by a master actress, both of whom exude commanding confidence and never shy away from their identities. Oyelowo is a paternal chess coach who believes in the kids he mentors and maintains a sunny disposition even in times of stress. His assertive nature makes him warm and encouraging, with no boisterous masculinity disrupting his love for nurturing young sporting future champions.
Nalwanga’s Phiona is wonderfully complex due to the film’s embrace of reality. Phiona is poor, from the slums, cannot read, is on a predetermined path and has no reason to believe anything special will ever happen to her. This is not the trope of a ‘relatable’ protagonist who thinks nothing will go their way – it is class consciousness that is highlighted when Phiona has a small taste of success. Having experienced the outside world she becomes dissatisfied with her home life, but is still unable to socially progress. Her mother is distressed over how lost her daughter has become, given the glimpse of a better life but with no way to achieve it. The world building in Queen of Katwe means this is all conveyed within five minutes, from Phiona’s feeling of dissociation, to her mother’s concerns, to the cause of the problem. It is exceptional story telling, and for a family film it treats younger audiences like the capable viewers that they are.
To say Queen of Katwe is a feel-good film ignores some real life horrors in the narrative. Because it fully engages with Phiona’s socioeconomic situation, we hope for her success not only because she deserves it, but because no one deserves the poverty she lives in. It is a highly intelligent yet highly accessible film that feels utterly fresh. In some ways it is daring on Disney’s behalf to take on a film that is not an easy sell – it is about chess – but it fits in their canon by being an inspiring tale that does not shy away from the darker sides of life, akin to all of the studio’s greats.
Particular attention is given to scenes with groups of people. There is a constant feel of community, whether that be the family unit, or the chess group run by Oyelowo’s Katende, or the patriotic support from the Ugandan people towards their hopeful champion. In an increasingly scary world, Queen of Katwe celebrates what we can achieve by working together, and how loved and supported we can feel by focusing on our most positive emotions. It really is a wonderful film.