It is still debated whether chess is a sport. It is a game, but is it also a sport?
One thing that’s not up for debate is whether Queen of Katwe is a sports movie. It is.
Disney and its ESPN Films department produced this true story of a Ugandan girl that plays her way to greatness via chess.
The movie had all the elements of a sports film. Things were just OK. Then things were good. Things were in montage form. Things were bad. Things were absolutely awful. Things were joyful. Things were my-god-plot-twist-how-will-our-protagonist-come-back-from-this.
Because Queen of Katwe was mostly formulaic, I pretty much knew how things were going to turn out. That didn’t stop me from wanting to get up and pace around my house while not really watching, but because I was watching it in a theater I had to just stare at my lap and write in a notebook pretending to take notes because I couldn’t stand the pressure.
The film was shot in the Katwe slums, where the protagonist, chess prodigy Phiona, grew up. It’s set against extreme poverty and sometimes harsh weather conditions, but there is a certain joy in the setting as well. The residents of Katwe are always bustling and the cinematography is rich in colors and sensations.
Additionally, the casting was done really well. Oscar winner Lupita Nyong’o (12 Years a Slave) played the role of Harriet, Phiona’s mother. Nyong’o at first seems too young to play a single mother of five who has already lost a child and a husband, but as Nyong’o explained in an interview with The Diamondback, Harriet became a mother at 15.
At 33, Nyong’o is actually the perfect age for the role, and her dedication to it shows. She learned Luganda so she could communicate with the child actors, many of whom are Ugandan, and some of whom did not speak English.
The lead actress, Madina Nalwanga, is from Uganda as well. This is her first film — the casting director found her in a community dance class, according to The New York Times. It seems she is barely acting; her first role is very natural. Part of that likely comes from the fact that Nalwanga’s own experience runs parallel to Phiona’s — plucked from her life in a village to become a celebrity.
Speaking of celebrities, David Oyelowo (Selma) plays the role of Phiona’s mentor, Robert Katende. His gentle (if a bit one-dimensional) portrayal is truly touching. His character also has all the big inspirational speeches in the movie.
He and Nyong’o are the big names in this film, but they do not overshadow the children who are so important to the story but so inexperienced in acting.
Queen of Katwe is a children’s movie in that it’s centered around young people and that its story is told in a simple way they can understand. Yet its message is not limited to a generation.
Oyelewo’s character says it best: “Sometimes the place you are used to is not the place you belong.”