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'Queen of Katwe' is an underdog story told with real feeling

The plight of slum kid-turned-teen chess champion Phiona Mutesi gets a movie that feels both cookie-cutter and alive.
Queen of Katwe

In "Queen of Katwe," Madina Nalwanga plays Phiona Mutesi, a real-life woman who weEdward Echwalu

‘Queen of Katwe’
Mira Nair
Stars: Madina Nalwanga, David Oyelowo
Rating: PG
3 (out of 5) Globes

Square as a chessboard, “Queen of Katwe” is a straight-up, no-shame underdog movie. It begs you to cheer, to cry, to be inspired, all on cue. It could be crass, and in its cookie-cutter way it is. But underneath it runs real feeling, not the least because its hero, one Phiona Mutesi (played by Madina Nalwanga), is no mere up-from-the-bootstraps go-getter. She came all the way from the slums of Uganda and, through a combination of superhero skills and crazy luck, became a World Candidate Master at chess by the time she was barely a teen. Most underdog movies are about winning and elevating one’s self up a couple castes; “Katwe,” at heart, is about basic survival.

It’s still more fable than social realist tract. Initially Nalwanga’s Phiona has little reason to think she’ll ever leave Katwe, a hellish slum buried inside the city of Kampala, where she lives with widowed mom, Harriet (Lupita Nyong’o), and her siblings. Her savior isn’t your typical Hollywood brave white man, but a brave black man: David Oyelowo’s Robert Katende, a part-time soccer coach who decides to start a chess program for low- and no-income kids. He’s amazed when Phiona, who can’t afford school and can’t even read, is a natural chess god. This inspirational Disney movie is a rarity in a landscape overrun by comic book movies, but the film treats her almost as though she was one of the X-Men, her gifts seemingly handed down from on high.

RELATED: Meet Phiona Mutesi, the chess champion subject of "Queen of Katwe"


This may sound like Phiona is elevated to pure myth, but “Katwe” makes sure one foot’s always on the ground. The shy, soft-spoken Phiona is never long from Katwe; even as she’s being jetted off to Chad or Siberia to battle across a board, she always returns to squalor, awaiting some way to monetize her skills. Director Mira Nair (“Monsoon Wedding,” “Salaam Bombay”) is a filmmaker who loves to dig into small enclaves and microcosms, then present them as sensually as possible. Her vision of Katwe is a place teeming with life and even beauty, with people defined by more than just their struggles. Case in point: Nyong’o’s Harriet. She’s a force of nature, proud yet maternal, stubborn yet playful. Nyong’o, if it wasn’t already apparent, has got the goods; witness an early throwaway bit as she stands down a predatory lothario, in which she tilts her head back and lets loose a low-level growl. It’s one of 2016’s better tiny filmic pleasures.

Nair sticks to the paint-by-numbers script, with its token comic relief bits and its inflated victories and its embellished second-to-third act crisis, in which Phiona wonders if she let her triumphs get to her head. It sands down or even elides some of the more unpleasant parts of her bio. (Her father’s death from AIDS when she was three is only alluded to.) But Nair makes sure there’s a real person with real skill and real passion working the levers, imbuing even the corniest moment with real feeling. “Katwe”’s very existence is a relief, ensuring that its beleaguered subject enjoys a happy life. (She’s now 20 and hoping for Harvard.) It didn’t have to be this alive. And yet it is.

Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge
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