The Film: 4/5
Never let it be said that the enterprising creative personnel at Walt Disney Pictures could ever fail at finding an inspirational true story in every sport ever created to transform into populist cinema. One day when there is an uplifting tale having to do with the Winter Olympics curling competition, Disney will make it into their next guaranteed box office hit.
Their latest entry in the sports film genre they often easily dominate is Queen of Katwe, based on the…. you guessed it, inspirational true story of Phiona Mutesi (newcomer Madina Nalwanga), a teenager living in a slum in the Ugandan city of Katwe with her resilient mother Harriet (Lupita Nyong’o) and brothers and sisters. Phiona is illiterate and has never attended school, instead resigned to a life harvesting and selling maize just as her mother has done her entire life, but an encounter with Robert Katende (David Oyelowo) in 2007 compels her to embrace a much different future when he offers to teach her the game of chess.
A university graduate, skilled football player, and chess master, Katende himself struggles to provide a good life for his wife Sara (Esther Tebandeke). When he accepts young Phiona onto his “Pioneers” chess team, he soon comes to realize that his newest pupil could become an even greater player at the game than himself, perhaps one day achieving the title of grandmaster, once she reveals to him that despite not being able to read she has an impressive understanding of the strategies involved in winning at chess. Although Harriet has doubts about the effect that exposure to a world much different than any she has ever known could have on her daughter’s attitude and morale, she reluctantly permits Phiona to compete in multiple tournaments in Uganda and around the world. Over the course of four years, with much encouragement and training from Katende, Phiona ascends to be the best chess player in Uganda, and one of the best in the entire world.
Based on the book of the same name by former Sports Illustrated senior writer Tim Crothers and produced in conjunction with ESPN Films, Queen of Katwe follows the basic narrative arc of most sports dramas of a prodigy pulling themselves up from practically nothing and battling against all odds to realize their long-untapped potential, but it is never beholden to the conventions of the past. The heart of the story in its characters and the struggles they face and overcome to survive the hassles of daily life, support their families, and achieve their dreams. Chess plays a crucial role in Phiona’s life but only as a means of helping her understand that she does not have to be defined by the station life assigned to her before she was even before. It inspires her to learn to read, desire to travel the world, and comprehend who she is and what she can be.
In the hands of a lesser director, Queen might have been good but barely above conventional quality. Instead the task was handed to Mira Nair, the gifted Indian filmmaker previously responsible for Salaam Bombay! and Mississippi Masala who has lived in Uganda for nearly three decades. Along with screenwriter William Wheeler, who last teamed with the director on The Reluctant Fundamentalist, Nair finds the emotional center of the story in Phiona’s quest to escape a life of poverty and discover her place in this world. Character development and credible world building are the filmmaker’s primary focuses and her success in realizing both gives Queen of Katwe deeper dramatic weight and sets it apart from most films devoted to rousing tales of overcoming adversity through sports.
The location filming in Uganda and South Africa allows Nair, with the help of stellar cinematography from Sean Bobbitt (12 Years a Slave) and the textured realism of Stephanie Carroll’s (Nair’s Monsoon Wedding), to immerse her audience in a Katwe that teems with life and illuminated by a veritable rainbow of emotions. The people who inhabit the city’s slums go about their daily lives with strength, conviction, and humor. They do what they must to compensate for what they don’t have and they refuse to let it drag them down. The 124-minute feature is primarily devoted to chess scenes; working with Spike Lee’s longtime editor Barry Alexander Brown, Nair constructs a strong and rhythmic narrative flow that allocates plenty of room for the audience to drink in the music and culture of Uganda, vastly enhancing the film’s pretense of legitimacy.
The cast is packed with compelling performances worthy of awards and accolades, with Madina Nalwanga particularly impressive in her debut role as the would-be chess master Phiona. She instills the character with natural grace and poignancy and makes her journey to becoming a champion in the sport one of great conviction. Oscar-winner Lupita Nyong’o is on top form as Phiona’s fiery, headstrong mother Harriet, a figure of wounded empathy who wants only the best for her children but also doesn’t want them to be set up to fail miserably. Bringing plenty of humor, charm, and quiet authority to his role as the determined chess coach with much to gain and much more to lose, the always terrific David Oyelowo makes for the perfect motivational character who is himself a fully-rounded individual with his own hopes and dreams. Supporting performances from Martin Kabanza (as Phiona’s kid brother), Taryn Kyaze (as her wayward older sister), and Esther Tebandeke (as Robert’s supportive wife and a teacher who helps Phiona learn to read) are another of Queen of Katwe’s many considerable strengths.
Queen of Katwe is the beneficiary of a handsome and flawless 1080p high-definition transfer presented in its original 2.39:1 widescreen aspect ratio. The picture is rich and lively in the preservation of the lush cinematography and the abundance of texture and detail allows the viewer to immerse themselves in the authenticity of the production design. Colors are warm and true and the image is so clean and free of defect that at times you can actually spot loose threads on the characters’ clothing and grains of dirt clinging to the walls and floors of every hut and shack in the village.
The English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track is very subtle in the way it replicates the quality of the film’s immaculately layered sound mix as theatrical audiences experienced it, with dialogue and ambient effects that come through with crystalline precision and a stirring soundtrack of new and original music and an orchestral score that refuses to lay on the emotion too thick complimenting each scene beautifully. French and Spanish Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtracks, an English 2.0 descriptive audio track, and subtitle options in English, French, and Spanish have also been made available for this Blu-ray.
Director Nair kicks things off with a thoughtful and engaging audio commentary that documents her involvement with bringing Queen of Katwe to the silver screen in exquisite detail and offers up a great deal of production insight and historical perspective. Worth the price of the Blu-ray alone, this commentary acts as a fantastic compliment to the main feature.
The three-part documentary “Queen of Katwe: Their Story” (30 minutes) goes beyond the usual home video release supplements to present the making of the film and the true story that inspired it in the first place with intelligence and warmth. Most of the production’s main players share their insights and the real life Phiona Mutesi and Robert Katende appear to talk about how they came to meet, inspire each other, and ultimately come to see their story made into a film. “A Fork, A Spoon, and A Knight” (13 minutes) is a short film co-directed by Nair that focuses on Katende as he discusses his troubled childhood (visualized through reenactments, some of which can also be seen in Queen) and how he came to embrace chess as something he could use to build himself into a better person and pass along his knowledge to the students he teaches.
In the featurette “In the Studio with Alicia Keys” (6 minutes) follows musician Alicia Keys in the creation and recording of “Back to Life”, an original song she composed for the film. This is followed by a lyric music video for “Back” (5 minutes) and a music video for “#1 Spice”, another song from the Queen of Katwe soundtrack performed by Young Cardamom & Hab, that is directed by Nair and can also be seen during the film’s ending credits. Finally, we have eight deleted and extended scenes that are each presented with an introduction by the filmmaker when you view them together (20 minutes). Disney has also provided this Blu-ray with a code for a Digital HD download.
Intelligent, heartfelt, and honest, but with nary a false, Queen of Katwe is perfect inspirational entertainment for those of us with secret gifts yearning to be embraced. Impassioned direction from the great Mira Nair and engrossing performances from a first-rate cast are just two of the film’s numerous virtues and this Blu-ray from Disney, with its flawless high-definition transfer and lovingly-assembled bonus features, undoubtedly earns a recommendation from me.