Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, CCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.
Courtney Howard // Film Critic
The mark of any great sports movie is its ability to transcend the sport in order to tell the human interest part of the tale. The game is merely the background – a playing field – for personal victories. Typically the ones with the most resonance are the underdog stories about players who rise from nothing to the top. Director Mira Nair’s inspirational AF drama, QUEEN OF KATWE, subverts and eschews stereotypical “sports flick’ formulas in order to tell its special tale about a young female chess prodigy who, herself, subverts expectations. Based on the real life tale featured in author Tim Crothers’ book The Queen of Katwe: One Girl’s Triumphant Path to Becoming a Chess Champion, the film engages your head and heart in equal measure.
Phiona Mutesi (Madina Nalwanga) never thought she’d be anything but a maize vendor in the town marketplace in the Ugandan slums. However, one day she and her brother Benjamin (Ethan Nazario Lubega) stumble into a makeshift chess hall and almost instantly fall in love with playing the strategic game. Though her mom Nakku Harriet (Lupita Nyong’o) worries over the potential downside, she reluctantly agrees to let her kids continue with the program. At least it’s safer than the shenanigans Phiona’s rebellious sister Night (Taryn Kyaze) is up to. Under the tutelage of youth minister/ coach Robert Katende (David Oyelowo), Phiona and Benjamin become masterful players. Sure, the boys make fun of Phiona, telling her she smells and other playground taunts. But she doesn’t sweat it because she’s got the skills to outsmart them – and everyone else in her league. She then begins her skyrocketing ascent in the tournament world – and that’s where things change not only for her, but also her family.
There’s a palpable, almost visceral sense of warmth and love coursing through Nair’s film. The honor and respect the actors have towards their real life counterparts is incredibly touching. It’s most evident during the end credits – which are the second best end credits I’ve ever seen (first place goes to LEMONY SNICKET’S). I challenge you not to ugly cry during them – or whenever you think about them again the rest of your life. It’s just that powerful. While there are many on-the-nose platitudes espoused (“the small one can become the big one,” and “challenges are not a curse”), they land on solid ground. These affirmations and life lessons are a great thing for all ages. It’s also a love letter to all the hardworking single mothers and coaches out there. Their sacrifice does not go unnoticed – and here it’s portrayed in incredibly poignant ways. When Nakku has to sell her beautiful dress, a family heirloom, it hits like a wallop. When Phiona acts spoiled upon returning home, a practically condemned sanctuary (which is symbolic on so many levels), from a chess tournament at a luxury resort, the look of embarrassment and pain in her mother’s eyes is a gut-punch. Robert is just as much a beacon of hope as Phiona’s mom. Not only does he give rousing pre-and-post game pep talks, at one point, he’s faced with the difficult decision of whether or not to accept a new, higher paying job.
That’s not to say it’s a perfect film. Phiona’s older sister’s travails get a little lost in the shuffle. It seems like they shy away from anything “too dark,” perhaps softening the edges as this is for audiences of all ages. We’re left to extrapolate a lot of what happens to Night when she abandons the family. It would have also been great to see the “girl caught between two worlds” aspect played up – it’s only there in a very subtle manner, like the visual of Phiona playing chess against the hustle and bustle of fishermen on the shore. Plus, beginning “in media res,” and then flashing back, spoils things a smidge as we already know she gets that far on the circuit.
Nonetheless, this is a truly exceptional story of courage, bravery, gumption, intelligence and faith.
QUEEN OF KATWE opens on September 23 in limited release. Everywhere on September 30.