Saturday, October 15, 2016

"The Queen of Katwe"

 4.5 / 5 

The Queen of Katwe is a movie about a girl from a Ugandan slum who becomes a chess player.

That might be the worst high-concept logline for a movie since, "A boy from an Indian slum becomes a contestant on 'Who Wants to Be a Millionaire,'" but Slumdog Millionaire went on to win the Oscar for Best Picture, and The Queen of Katwe bears a lot of resemblance to that movie in the best possible way, especially in their shared sense of quiet, defiant optimism.

Phiona Mutesi, a real-life chess prodigy played flawlessly by first-time actress Madina Nalwanga, cannot read or write, she is just a little girl, but her life has already been defined for her: She will help her mother (Lupita Nyong'o) and her brother Brian (Martin Kabanza) sell corn on the streets.  Her sister, named Night (Taryn Kyaze) has seen her own way out, through finding a fast-talking man on a motorcycle.  (The movie, which is rated PG and released by Disney, implies but never directly states prostitution.)

But Phiona and Brian stumble across a ministry-sponsored chess club run by Katende (David Oyelowo), and though the unbathed, slovenly Phiona is mocked by the others on her first day, she refuses to accept their taunts.  Katende is impressed.  Chess, he observes, is a game about fighting, and Phiona is a fighter.

From here, The Queen of Katwe follows a familiar sports-movie trajectory: training, success, unexpectedly devastating defeat, resilience and victory.

The Queen of Katwe is as predictable as they come, but director Mira Nair and screenwriter William Wheeler turn that familiarity into an asset, and the extraordinary cast capitalizes on it.  The strength of the movie rests on how much we are willing to believe we haven't seen this story again, and Nyong'o, Oywelwo and, especially, Nalwanga make us believe.

Chess, of course, isn't exactly a cinematic game, and most movies that have tried (Searching for Bobby Fischer is a noteworthy exception) don't generally succeed in making it particularly compelling.  The Queen of Katwe solves the problem of the complexity and general unfamiliarity with the chess by ignoring it.  The specifics of the game aren't important; the concepts of the game are: strategy, long-range thinking and discipline.

They're not qualities that would generally be rewarded in the kind of world in which Phiona lives, but Katende, her coach, gets her and us to understand why they matter.  In one of the movie's most affecting scenes, when Phiona has lost a key match and wants to give up, he reveals some of his own childhood, and then gets to the movie's meaning: Losing isn't easy, but what's important is not (contrary to conventional wisdom) how you've played, but in how you reset the board and line up the pieces to try again.

It's a beautiful moment in a beautiful film, one matched in emotional honesty when Katende reveals to his wife (Esther Tebandeke) that he has turned down a job in order to keep coaching his kids.  Her response runs counter to every cinematic stereotype we've ever seen of the long-suffering-but-stoic wife, and the same could be said for the movie.

The Queen of Katwe could all too easily have slipped into condescension, but it consistently avoids the easy way out; it's an intelligent, emotionally open-hearted and frequently surprising movie, a film that takes a story that follows a trajectory that seems entirely familiar but sends it into a place that feels new, warm and completely fulfilling.

In large part due to its flawless cast and the honestly won catharsis of its final scenes, The Queen of Katwe is a movie that reminds us why, to paraphrase a popular Internet meme, everything is going to be OK.

Viewed Oct. 15, 2016 -- Century Regency


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