Queen of Katwe continues Disney's tradition of inspiring tales wrapped around competition by showcasing champion chess player Phiona Mutesi, Uganda's ultimate underdog story. The film, directed by Mira Nair, features acting performances from David Oyelowo, Lupita Nyong'o, Madina Nalwanga, Martin Kabanza, Taryn Kyaze, and Esther Tebandeke.
Disney loves showing us real life underdog stories that feature unlikely heroes pulling off victories with fairy tale endings. While you might say this is one of those stories, William Wheeler's screenplay, based off of the book by Tim Crothers, digs much deeper into the heart and soul of Phiona Mutesi's journey from the obscurity of her village in Uganda to worldwide fame as a champion chess player. We also see how an impoverished family deals with exposure to a way of life that is still just out of reach and a mother's struggle with being able to provide more than a basic life for her children. Director Mira Nair does a fine job of weaving together so many threads of the story including that of Robert Katende, the man who discovers Phiona and teaches her the game that changes her life.
While the story is solid, it's the three primary cast members who really elevate this film to being something special and worth watching. The casting department had a tall order in finding a young woman who could not only live up to the amazing person she would be portraying, but could also stand alongside Hollywood heavyweights like David Oyelowo and Lupita Nyong'o. Whatever they did to find Madina Nalwanga needs to be bottled and sold to anyone on who has ever taken on the job of casting a film as her her performance, her first performance, is an absolute home run. She makes you believe in Phiona from the very beginning. You feel every moment of her struggle and you cheer for every one of her victories.
David Oyelowo seems to always put in a strong performance and this film is certainly no exception. His character provides a grounded center for all of the emotion and struggle happening around him even while he himself is dealing with many issues in his own life. After winning an Oscar for 12 Years a Slave, one would expect Lupita Nyong'o to have continued success in Hollywood although I doubt if anyone would have predicted her systematic takeover of the industry. Every moment she is on any type of screen is a gift to humanity and what she does here as Phiona's mom nearly steals the entire show. If there was such a thing as a "Best Start to a Career" award, she would be the clear winner.
Queen of Katwe is a very good movie and shows us a part of the world we don't often see. No matter where we are, there are stories of triumph, of tragedy, and of human beings creating opportunities where no one thought they could exist. If you like feel good movies that have a bit of an emotional tug to them, then you are sure to enjoy this film as it offers all of that and more.