QUEEN OF KATWE
Direction: Mira Nair
Actors: Madina Nalwanga, Lupita Nyong’o, David Oyelowo
After four years, Mira Nair (The Reluctant Fundamentalist) returns to our multiplexes with one of the unlikeliest of true stories.
Set in an impoverished neighbourhood of Kampala, the Ugandan capital where Nair has lived for the past several decades, Queen of Katwe zeroes in on a teenage chess prodigy (portrayed with ‘a star is born’ verve by newcomer Madina Nalwanga), who overcame abject poverty to become an internationally renowned chess champion.
Living with her widowed mother (a stirring performance by the 12 Years A Slave Oscar winner Lupita Nyong’o) and three siblings, she was merely nine when she discovered the liberating potential of the board game.
Mentored by an altruistic coach (David Oyelowo), the precocious protagonist displays a natural aptitude for complex chess moves.
Sharpening her mental skills, she emerges victorious in inter-school competitions and eventually represents Uganda at the 2010 Moscow Chess Olympiad.
Adapted from the profile by Tim Crothers and co-produced by Walt Disney Pictures and Nair’s own Mirabai Films, the director efficiently conveys a sense of the squalor and strife which the youngster and her family have to routinely confront. Their economic and emotional trajectory is compelling.
Aided by the fluid camerawork of Sean Bobbitt, Nair films the poorer sections of the titular township, be it the constant traffic jams or the roadside maize vendors, with a vibrant visual style.
There are some poignant interludes such as an early scene in which the underfed new player licks the residue of porridge which has spilled over the rim of her mug. On the other hand, the flashbacks to her mentor’s own deprived childhood are more inept than incisive. Also, there are ponderous asides about against-the-odds pursuit of one’s dreams.
As if to drive the message home, the rundown van used to transport the Ugandan players even has a bumper sticker which proclaims, “Challenges are not a curse”. Uh-oh!
Nair has assembled an impressive array of all-black supporting actors, most of them non-professional kids from the locality. Despite a few missteps, Queen of Katwe is worth a visit.