“In chess, the small one can become the big one.”
The more I read about world affairs and watch the news and study foreign cinema, the more I discount the singularity of “The American Dream.” Granted, Ellis Island served as heaven’s man-made gates for millions of immigrants. Even now, countless refugees risk life and limb to reach our shores aboard rickshaw boats. We may have branded the ideal as our own, but the dream isn’t unique to our nation; we’re merely given the freedom and the opportunity to exercise our will in hopes of turning those chimeras into reality. Somehow and some way, Queen of Katwe – a Disney movie about chess – explores this denotation and reaches the summit of social mobility through its strategically satisfying feel good story. If this film doesn’t make you laugh and cheer and cry, you’re probably in need of a defibrillator.
Ugandan native Phiona Mutesi (Madina Nalwanga) is illiterate, selling corn street side to make ends meet, living in a shack with her family. The eldest girl Night (Taryn Kyaze) runs off with a boy who spoils her. Brother Brian (Martin Kabanza) is Phiona’s partner in crime and Richard is the infant. Their mother (Lupita Nyong’o) plays the head of the household, a widower forced to be a dual space of compassion and a strict disciplinarian. This story is about Phiona though, and like any young child, her restlessness becomes quenched by doing what is formally opposed. So, chess it is. And surprisingly, she’s a prodigy. Capable of reading moves ahead, seeing the big picture, playing a piece here while hiding another there. The girl, played with conviction by newcomer Nalwanga, is a magician who needs to be taught discipline and slight of hand. In that regard, you can’t ask for a much better teacher than the village’s coach Robert (David Oyelowo).
Through Robert’s prodding, we’re asked to look outside of ourselves from the get go, to expand our scopes and determine the source of the film’s aspirations. The answer is, quite simply, to be better. To climb up the ladder of thought from primal self-preservation with hopes of someday reaching actualization. Such is the game of chess. It’s not the first time the brainiac board game will be used as an empowering personal device in cinema, nor will it be the last, but Queen of Katwe just might be one of its best applications. In this setting though, the heartbreak of parenthood plays a central role. How must it feel to not only want your child to be better than you, but to realize that they are better than you? In this case it’s hard, and yet true love, as it rightfully should, guides the principaled decision-making. This is a film made by winners with a perceptively keen eye noting that not everyone comes out on top. Pawn pieces turn to Queens, prompts request we not tip our King too early, lines tell us to play the game win or lose. Queen of Katwe is authentic, well-rounded, and abundantly influential in its worldliness.
Queen of Katwe would have been an overbearing watch without the dashes of Disney formula. There’s levity, laughter, optimism, and dissatisfaction. All of these traits are shown in an exemplary exchange of dialogue. Phiona lugs heavy jugs of water from the well, taking her normal route home. A man forming clay bricks stops and asks, “Hey Phiona, how is your life?” Without looking his way she replies, “It is fine.” This girl is meant for more. Her coach knows it, effortlessly played with embracing charisma and steadfast positivity from the generational talent Oyelowo. As does Nyong’o who gets the most difficult role in the film and makes it look like a cakewalk. Despite all of the talent on-screen, director Mira Nair is the most worthy of recognition. Disney movies like this always fall apart in what’s typically called the protagonist’s “all is lost” turn of events. And Nair dips her camera in the moment ever so briefly, opting to persist in optimism instead of diving towards negativity. She’s a capable director, a talented storyteller, and a master of turning apocryphal material into convincingly authentic realizations. Queen of Katwe inspires confidence and preserves the increasingly endangered human inclination towards goodness. See this film, and let it remind you that the gift of life is one to be played and not forfeited.
“This is a place for fighters.”
Rating: 4 out of 5