Disney has been adding smaller profile titles to their movie library over the last few years, films that feature a more diverse cast. Between juggernauts like Frozen, Inside Out, and Finding Dory, you might have spotted Million Dollar Arm or McFarland, USA. These last two are sports movies based on true stories where an underdog or a team of underdogs are brought to their full potential by a really great coach. In both those cases, that coach happens to be a white American male.
In some ways, Queen of Katwe is very much like those other two. The underdog comes from a background of poverty; all the odds are stacked against her. But her compassionate coach and strong personal drive push her over all obstacles. Her sport happens to be chess, but the format works just the same.
Phiona is an intelligent Ugandan girl with a natural sense for strategy, making her a perfect player for the game of chess. The fact that she lives in a slum works against her, but her coach (David Oyelowo) sees her potential and pushes her, along with her teammates, to compete and win against young people with many more advantages.
The beauty of this particular story is that her coach is Ugandan, just as she is. He grew up in poverty just as she did. He worked hard to overcome obstacles and knows that she can too. He’s not a wealthy, connected man; he’s working at a church sports ministry while he searches for an elusive engineering job.
The Queen of Katwe is an ode to perseverance and humility in the face of difficulty. Life in Katwe, the slum in Kampala, Uganda, is hard, and young women face dismal options. Even Phiona’s mother faces pressure to become a kept woman to make ends meet. Lupita Nyong’o has one of the most compelling screen presences of today’s actresses, and she is not wasted here as the widowed, frustrated mother. The movie is full of strong, loving family relationships even in the hardest of times. And while Oyelowo and Nyong’o are the headliners, Madina Nalwanga is wonderful and believable as Phiona.
Here is a family movie that is inspiring and heartwarming without being cloying. It’s not for the youngest viewers, as the plight of a single woman in the slums is part of the story. However, that is dealt with in a sensitive rather than sensational way. And while the formula for the sports movie holds true, it does so in the very best of ways. (Disney)