Without an ounce of the kind of poverty porn cheap sentimentality that has come to define contemporary American cinematic takes on third world struggles, Queen of Katwe is a triumphant piece of mainstream filmmaking.
From the true story chronicled in an ESPN Magazine in 2012, Katwe centers on the rise from poverty of local Ugandan girl Phiona (newcomer Madina Nalwanga) once she joins a local chess class and goes on to compete in global tournaments. The story becomes close to a three-hander, expanding its sights to Fiona’s hardened and skeptical mother Nakku Harriet (Lupita Nyong’o) and her sacrificing teacher Robert Katende (David Oyelowo). Phiona is the film’s center but the expanded point of views extrapolate on the Ugandan setting, broadening the scope beyond her experience through a focus on character.
The cast itself is quite special. Nalwanga is a natural presence, laid back without underselling the girl discovering herself. Oyelowo modulates the emotion of the film adeptly, ever the modest and believable leading man we’ve come to adore. But the film’s emotional compass is Lupita Nyongo’s mother. Even the more expected notes for the character (stubbornness, overprotectiveness, disappointment) are freshly realized. Nyong’o takes a stock woman you think you know, and makes every turn rife with discovery and feeling.
Owing more to sports drama pacing than you are anticipating (the film is co-produced by ESPN’s film division), the film is so vibrantly alive as to never succumb to the sluggish pitfalls of overly familiar narrative structures. Director Mira Nair is a perfect fit to deliver more from the material, as inspired by family and community relationship as ever before. Ever the compassionate filmmaker she has always been, Katwe‘s many occasional platitudes are rich with feeling while avoiding dipping into motivational poster territory. Indeed, even its girl power rally cry results more from the nuances to Phiona’s journey than any greeting card proselytizing.
As much as Phiona’s growth comes from the support of parent and teacher and the camaraderie of her teammates, Katwe exhibits an intuitive collaborative spirit behind the camera. Nair and director of photography Sean Bobbitt are a particular match made in heaven, the director’s work on building character relationships enhanced by Bobbitt’s insightful lensing. The emotional distance between parent and child, Phiona’s isolated vulnerability in her own community, the larger world outside ignorant to her personhood are all crafted with gravitas. What lesser films would try to verbally express with hokey sentiment, Bobbitt soulfully expresses visually with genuine curiousity – it’s one of the most inquisitively shot films this year.
Alex Heffes’s score finds surprising cohesion through melodic variety and his composition is emotional without being cloying or oversimplistic. An audience-service moment at the start of the credits is quickly overtaken by perhaps the most blindly joyful piece of the film: an original rap tune “#1 Spice” featuring the cast dancing along. The easy comparison is Slumdog Millionaire‘s “Jai Ho”, but unlike that film, it actually works here.
A rousing success ready for endless rewatching, Queen of Katwe is one of the year’s most intelligently and deeply felt heartwarmers.