PopMatters is moving to WordPress. We will publish a few essays daily while we develop the new site. We hope the beta will be up sometime late next week.

'Queen of Katwe' Both Lapses Into and Transcends Formula

Lupita Nyong'o and Madina Nalwanga in Queen of Katwe (2016)

Queen of Katwe offers a way to see into another world, a way to expand your own understanding.

Queen of Katwe

Director: Mira Nair
Cast: Madina Nalwanga, David Oyelowo, Lupita Nyong'o, Martin Kabanza, Taryn Kyaze, Ivan Jacobo, Nicolas Levesque, Ronald Ssemaganda
Rated: PG
Studio: Disney
Year: 2016
US date: 2016-09-23 (Limited release)
UK date: 2016-10-21 (General release)

Standing in a doorway, backlit by a bright sun, nine-year-old Phiona (Madina Nalwanga) watches other children set up chess boards. Their pieces are rag-tag and worn, each set different from another, donated, borrowed, and found. As the pieces spill from a cloth sack in close-up shots, they look magical, especially when the camera cuts to Phiona's face, intent and entranced.

When she enters the room, the boys around her tell her she smells, pointing and hooting. When she pushes back, scuffling with one of the boys, the teacher looks over. "She's a fighter," he says, encouraging her. "This is a place for fighters."

Of course it is. Chess is both the means and metaphor for Phiona's story in Queen of Katwe. As Coach Robert Katende (David Oyelowo) welcomes her into this place, he identifies for the rest of us what makes her the perfect star for this Disney movie by way of ESPN, directed by the tenacious, ever-inventive Mira Nair.

Consider Phiona's experience, based on the real life of Phiona Mutesi, a girl who learned she was a chess prodigy while living in poverty, who then learned to read in order to be able to read chess books (first presented in a 2011 ESPN The Magazine profile). In addition, the film itself faces another set of formal obstacles, being a "Disney movie". The very phrase conjures expectations and limits: you anticipate an uplifting story arc, an instructive family experience, and yes, a prodigious marketing effort.

No doubt, Queen of Katwe embraces clichés. Phiona is plucky and brilliant, responsible and determined. She overcomes obstacles and forges a new identity within an inspiring and inspired community. Per sports movie conventions, she's the underdog who encounters sequential challenges, some at chess matches, others at home. She looks after her younger brothers, she argues with her widowed Harriet (Lupita Nyong'o), who does her best to support her children by selling corn. These arguments emerge when Harriet, understandably, doesn't quite get chess, guessing at first that Robert is using Phiona and her brother Brian (Martin Kabanza), also a chess player, for a nefarious gambling operation.

Protective, proud and fiercely intelligent, Harriet is as perfect a Disney mom as her daughter is a hero. Having lost her oldest daughter, Night (Taryn Kyaze), to an older man and early pregnancy, Harriet is also aware of what might be. Describing herself as "an uneducated" woman, she reflects back to Robert both the promise and the potential lie of the education he urges her to allow her children to have. As she leaves him behind at a rudimentary outdoor café table, amidst the street dirt and the busy market, the camera tracks her from the front, her stride strong and her head high, as he stays still, fading into shallow focus as he watches her leave. (True to Disney, two scenes later, Harriet agrees to let Phiona travel to Russia for a tournament.)

Coach's complicated role throughout the movie is rendered in such compositions, in shots that show his gentle patience and power, embodied in Oyelowo's understated performance. Sometimes, again, he's filling the background, as when he marvels at Phiona's escalating skills during a training session set outdoors, light glinting off a lake quite gorgeously stretched behind them. She nods, and as he walks away, thinking out loud about how to develop her horizon further still, the shot makes clear how this moment and Phiona's future might come together, how time might expand in a single image.

Nair's movie works this magic repeatedly, in scenes where the street outside Phiona and Harriet's temporary housing is alive with light and movement even as it's constrained by destitution, or where Phiona and her teammates stay at a hotel with a pool, bobbing in chlorinated water for the first time ever, their smiles wide as they process this other world as 13-year-olds must, excited and daunted and enraptured. Again and again, you recognize the movie as such, as a fiction, but at the same time, as a way to see into another world, a way to expand your own understanding.

"Sometimes the place you are is not the place you belong," Coach tells Phiona. As she travels to many places in Queen of Katwe, Phiona sees what she doesn't have when she returns home. Having learned of more options, she sometimes feels like a hero and sometimes resents where she comes from. Nair's work, from Salaam Bombay! through to The Namesake and Amelia, has long been about people finding places to be, to have and achieve dreams. If that story here sometimes lapses into formula, the dazzling color (oranges and yellows and magentas) and thrilling energy and sheer art of each scene help to make that formula less burdensome, to make these places vibrant and marvelous.

This is never clearer than at the movie's end when, under the credits, the real life people whose story you've just seen reshaped for your entertainment, appear alongside the actors who play them. They lean in toward each other, posing, awkward and happy. You can only imagine the places they are now, and the places they will be.


Please Donate to Help Save PopMatters

PopMatters have been informed by our current technology and hosting provider that we have less than a month, until November 6, to move PopMatters off their service or we will be shut down. We are moving to WordPress and a new host, but we really need your help to save the site.





Laura Veirs Talks to Herself on 'My Echo'

The thematic connections between these 10 Laura Veirs songs and our current situation are somewhat coincidental, or maybe just the result of kismet or karmic or something in the zeitgeist.


15 Classic Horror Films That Just Won't Die

Those lucky enough to be warped by these 15 classic horror films, now available on Blu-ray from The Criterion Collection and Kino Lorber, never got over them.


Sixteen Years Later Wayne Payne Follows Up His Debut

Waylon Payne details a journey from addiction to redemption on Blue Eyes, The Harlot, The Queer, The Pusher & Me, his first album since his 2004 debut.


Every Song on the Phoenix Foundation's 'Friend Ship' Is a Stand-Out

Friend Ship is the Phoenix Foundation's most personal work and also their most engaging since their 2010 classic, Buffalo.


Kevin Morby Gets Back to Basics on 'Sundowner'

On Sundowner, Kevin Morby sings of valleys, broken stars, pale nights, and the midwestern American sun. Most of the time, he's alone with his guitar and a haunting mellotron.


Lydia Loveless Creates Her Most Personal Album with 'Daughter'

Given the turmoil of the era, you might expect Lydia Loveless to lean into the anger, amplifying the electric guitar side of her cowpunk. Instead, she created a personal record with a full range of moods, still full of her typical wit.


Flowers for Hermes: An Interview with Performing Activist André De Shields

From creating the title role in The Wiz to winning an Emmy for Ain't Misbehavin', André De Shields reflects on his roles in more than four decades of iconic musicals, including the GRAMMY and Tony Award-winning Hadestown.


The 13 Greatest Horror Directors of All Time

In honor of Halloween, here are 13 fascinating fright mavens who've made scary movies that much more meaningful.


British Jazz and Soul Artists Interpret the Classics on '​Blue Note Re:imagined'

Blue Note Re:imagined provides an entrance for new audiences to hear what's going on in British jazz today as well as to go back to the past and enjoy old glories.


Bill Murray and Rashida Jones Add Another Shot to 'On the Rocks'

Sofia Coppola's domestic malaise comedy On the Rocks doesn't drown in its sorrows -- it simply pours another round, to which we raise our glass.


​Patrick Cowley Remade Funk and Disco on 'Some Funkettes'

Patrick Cowley's Some Funkettes sports instrumental renditions from between 1975-1977 of songs previously made popular by Donna Summer, Herbie Hancock, the Temptations, and others.


The Top 10 Definitive Breakup Albums

When you feel bombarded with overpriced consumerism disguised as love, here are ten albums that look at love's hangover.


Dustin Laurenzi's Natural Language Digs Deep Into the Jazz Quartet Format with 'A Time and a Place'

Restless tenor saxophonist Dustin Laurenzi runs his four-piece combo through some thrilling jazz excursions on a fascinating new album, A Time and a Place.


How 'Watchmen' and 'The Boys' Deconstruct American Fascism

Superhero media has a history of critiquing the dark side of power, hero worship, and vigilantism, but none have done so as radically as Watchmen and The Boys.


Floodlights' 'From a View' Is Classicist Antipodal Indie Guitar Pop

Aussie indie rockers, Floodlights' debut From a View is a very cleanly, crisply-produced and mixed collection of shambolic, do-it-yourself indie guitar music.


CF Watkins Embraces a Cool, Sophisticated Twang on 'Babygirl'

CF Watkins has pulled off the unique trick of creating an album that is imbued with the warmth of the American South as well as the urban sophistication of New York.


Helena Deland Suggests Imagination Is More Rewarding Than Reality on 'Something New'

Canadian singer-songwriter Helena Deland's first full-length release Someone New reveals her considerable creative talents.


While the Sun Shines: An Interview with Composer Joe Wong

Joe Wong, the composer behind Netflix's Russian Doll and Master of None, articulates personal grief and grappling with artistic fulfillment into a sweeping debut album.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.