by Eric Blume
Usually adjectives like “inspirational” and “crowd-pleasing” make most serious moviegoers want to go running straight for the hills, and indeed the trailer for Disney’s Queen of Katwe made me shudder. This true story of a poor Ugandan girl (played here by newcomer Madina Nalwanga) who becomes a candidate master at chess has all the markers of the usual Disney underdog story, and you expect all the typical manipulation that comes with it.
But most films aren’t directed by Mira Nair, and she turns Queen of Katwe into something rare: a true story that plays authentically and simply. Nair shot this film in the actual slums of Katwe in Kampala, Uganda, and her love for the place, the people, and the culture is unmistakable...
Nair sees the beauty of this slum and its inhabitants; shes doesn’t clean it up for the cameras, but she doesn’t glamorize it either. The setting just IS…we see the chaos, the busy and annoyed residents, the markets, the work and the hustle, and it just serves as texture for the story. There’s no sense of superiority where Nair feels she has to “explain Africa” to the viewer, yet she whisks you into the fray with sweet immediacy. Working with cinematographer Sean Bobbit (Shame and 12 Years a Slave), she keeps her cameras gliding but also knows when to hold powerfully on a face.
There are a few movie-movie moments here and there, and when the kids of Katwe go their first big chess tournament halfway into the movie, suddenly traditional movie music swells up and you fear the film might unravel. But Nair maintains her ground for the most part: you feel like her few dips into the treacly were perhaps the result of notes from Disney execs, a bit of a compromise on her part to deliver to them something marketable. Even those moments are few and far between: you feel powerfully her passion for the story, the actors, and the real people, where not only is everyone’s heart in the right place, but it’s all commandeered by an artist in full control.
Newcomer Nalwanga has an effortless screen presence, and a wide, beautiful face that is perfect for the camera. She seems equal parts calm and charismatic, and her performance feels fully lived-in. She’s aided greatly by two skilled pros who play off her joyfully. David Oyelowo, the very best thing about Selma, plays her coach; and Lupita Nyong’o, one of the many great things about the stunning 12 Years a Slave, plays her mother. Both actors have natural authority and estimable technique that contribute hugely to the success of the film. While they play roles that could ostensibly be clichés (warm noble man and unsentimental loving mother), they add specific touches that make the characters authentically African. Their work feels rooted in the culture, and they avoid a sense of canned “adults in a kids’ story” generalities… they’re glorious.
Nair’s epilogue during the end credits, a mini bliss-out, is emblematic of the entire film: she avoids the sentimental and instead delivers something wonderfully full of sentiment.