All images courtesy of Walt Disney Pictures
It’s that time of year when the leaves fall, the weather gets crisper, everything gets flavored with pumpkin spice, and Disney releases a sports movie to leave us inspired and moved to tears. Their latest, QUEEN OF KATWE, routinely carries the torch from its predecessors and tells an uplifting story about the real-life Ugandan chess marvel Phiona Mutesi (newcomer Madina Nalwanga). It’s your standard against-the-odds film and is an endearing win, but the biggest triumph for this film is the long-delayed progressiveness for the Mouse House’s long legacy of sports movies.
For one, the movie centers on an unconventional sport. Many would say that chess is not a legitimate sport, but it’s a competition that arguably takes a massive amount of mental capacity that would be equivalent to the physical activity needed for one full quarter of football. Second, the film follows a young, female lead — and a black female at that. To my knowledge, there hasn’t been a female sports hero in the history of Disney sports films. Third, the film is directed by Mira Nair, a female of color — something that is a rarity in Hollywood.
The most notable difference between Katwe and its predecessors is that there is no “white savior” that has been a staple in previous films. In McFarland, USA, Kevin Costner’s character leads a predominantly Latino track team to a state championship while in Million Dollar Arm where Jon Hamm plays a sports agent that travels to India to discover two baseball pitchers. The same goes for other films like Glory Road and Cool Runnings. In Katwe, David Oyelowo plays Robert Katende, a character — a fellow Ugandan — who refreshingly serves as more of a mentor rather than a savior, standing in the background while allowing Phiona to shine. It’s this detail that shows that there are true stories where a “white savior” doesn’t have to swoop in and save a seemingly downtrodden community of color.
The enormous amount of heart in the movie is thanks to Nair’s thoughtful direction and genuine performances from the young cast (they are quite delightful). The Namesake director not only gives an even-handed and surprisingly enthralling look at Phiona’s relationship with the game of chess, but also the bond between the characters surrounding her, primarily her chess coach and her mother Harriet played by the always-radiant Lupita Nyong’o. The Academy Award-winning actress’s performance as a determined, strong single mother doing right by her family washes over the screen with her grace and gravitas. Along with Oyelowo’s Katende, the two provide strong support to Nalwanga, whose smile alone captivates and charms from start to finish.
When it comes to being your run-of-mill sports story of inspiration, Queen of Katwe meets the appropriate standards, but as a sports film, it breaks ground by shaking up the status quo of the films that came before it. Calling Katwe a story of rags-to-riches is a disservice because storytelling in film has evolved — and in order for it to be a substantial film, it can’t be just that. It has to be layered and not a sob story, but a tale of hope — and the film does exactly that. Nair, with William Wheeler’s screenplay based on a Tim Crothers ESPN Magazine article, keeps the story intimate and contained in one region without any interlopers (read: the aforementioned white savior). At the same time, we are taken on this wide-eyed journey of a young girl who is mesmerized by chess and becomes a wunderkind at the game, quickly catching on and using her brilliant talent to learn life lessons and more about the importance of self-worth — a story that is more relevant now more than ever for young women.
Running time: 124 minutes
Dino-Ray Ramos watches too much TV, enjoys reality singing competitions and laughs inappropriately during dramatic films. He’s a fan of comedy, podcasts, and comedy podcasts. He’s a reformed comic book geek and thinks “The Goonies” is the best movie of all time. When he isn’t stuffing his face with a burrito, he’s thinking about his next trip to Disneyland.
Dino-Ray Ramos | Staff Writer