107 min. | PG-13
Movies about child prodigies will always draw an audience, especially when based on a true story involving triumph over adversity. Queen of Katwe occupies a special place for its true-life protagonist: an impoverished girl from Uganda who becomes a world chess champion.
Phiona (Madina Nalwanga) is a young girl growing up in Katwe, a vast slum of mud brick hovels and alleys paved in more mud. Her widowed mother is a strong-willed woman determined to hold her children together. They peddle cassava on the streets to pay the rent on a dirt-floored hovel with no electricity.
They are on a hard treadmill going nowhere—until Phiona is initiated into the world of chess by the soccer coach, Robert. He worked his way through engineering school by playing chess for money. He forms a chess club to help teach the slum kids mental discipline and acuity, and with the vague hope that it might help some of them rise from poverty. Phiona is his best pupil.
Chess lacks the visual dynamism of boxing or even tennis. It’s harder to build cinematic excitement, yet Queen of Katwe succeeds in putting human faces on the players, dramatizing their ambitions and explicating the intricacies of a game in which a pawn can overtake a king. Phiona’s gift for strategy (“One of your ancestors must have commanded great armies,” Robert says) is honed as she practices on a crudely drawn board with bottle caps for pieces.
Director Mira Nair displays an eye for the humanity in poverty, the hope in the ruin of dreams, as well as the character and color of a particular place. Drawn from the book on Phiona by American sports writer Tim Crothers, the screenplay tends to wrap desperation and triumph in neatly-bowed packages, and new setback to overcome.
The truth may be that the real-life Phiona persevered against her mother’s suspicion that Robert was up to no good, the barriers of Uganda’s class system and her lack of education to become a champion on a stage she never knew existed.