Disney’s new inspirational sports film boasts strong lead performances, but a familiar-feeling story.
As the country prepares for a fall filled with football, basketball, and the baseball playoffs, it’s easy to feel oversaturated by inspirational sports stories. At the heart of many of these narratives is the notion that their natural abilities and dedication were able to lift them out of their circumstances and earn them unexpected success. In a sense Mira Nair’s new chess drama Queen of Katwe, sticks closely to this idea, albeit with a somewhat unconventional sports subject. Whether you’re looking at an athletic superstar or a teenage chess prodigy, the stories remain the same—that all are equal in the throes of competition and no one should surrender.
The Uganda-set film tells the true story of Phiona Mutesi (Madina Nalwanga), a young girl growing up in the largely impoverished area of Katwe and being raised by her widowed mother (Lupita Nyong’o). By chance she stumbles upon a local ministry group aiming to support local children through the power of sports, specifically chess. The group’s exuberant leader Robert (David Oyelowo) eventually notices Phiona’s natural aptitude for the game and takes her under his wing, enrolling her in tournaments across Africa. Over the course of several years, Phiona’s chess experiences offer her glimpses of a life outside of Katwe, leaving her pulled between the family she loves and her dream of becoming a chess master.
While the pieces are all there for a moving story, William Wheeler’s screenplay struggles to maneuver them into something truly affecting. Perhaps the biggest issue is the lack of focus on any one aspect of Phiona’s growth as a chess player. Because the film’s events stretch from 2008-2011, it never appears that the film’s building momentum to any specific event, but instead is merely a “best of tape” of inspiring moments. When the film reaches its climax at the last of several chess tournaments shown in the film, it’s difficult to distinguish what, if anything, makes it different or worthy of the tension the movie wants it to have other than film needing a standard final triumph for its hero.
Still, both the director Nair and cinematographer Sean Bobbitt do their best to make something distinctive out of its familiar story, showcasing the colors and natural setting of Katwe in often-vivid fashion. Additionally, much of the film is buoyed by the one-two punch of the film’s very talented leads Oyelowo and Nyong’o. Oyelowo, possessing the showier role, continues to assert himself as one of the top rising film stars, bringing the energy and compassion necessary for the audience to understand why Phiona and the kids are so inspired by him. While Nyong’o, tackling her first live-action film role since winning an Oscar in 2014, is unfortunately given significantly less to do, she makes the most of her material in the film’s latter half including a compelling sequence wherein she sells a family heirloom to support her daughter’s studying. As Phiona, Nalwanga acquaints herself well for a first time actor, holding her own against two top-tier film actors and representing the growth Phiona experiences over the years. Ultimately while these elements make Queen distinct enough to feel like a worthy venture, one can’t help but wish the story strove to be something more than just another inspirational sports story.