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Thursday, Sept. 29, 2016 12:04 am

Inspiring Queen avoids pitfalls

Lupita Nyong’o as Harriet Mutesi in Queen of Katwe.


Taking a break from traditional sports-based films (Miracle, Million Dollar Arm, McFarland USA), Disney and co-producer ESPN bring us a movie focusing on competition of a different sort with Queen of Katwe, a fact-based account of one young girl’s struggles to not only make it in the world of competitive chess but to free herself from her debilitating social circumstances. To be sure, the movie follows a familiar sports-film rhythm but it somehow succeeds in not becoming a collection of clichés and manages to find genuine inspiration at just the right time.

Phiona (Madina Nalwanga) is a 9-year-old girl living in the slums of Kampala, the capital of Uganda, when missionary Robert Katende (David Oyelowo) introduces her to chess at a local activity center. Inexplicably, she takes to the game like a duck to water and before you know it, the young girl is beating more experienced players, winning local tournaments and thinking about life outside her village for the first time.

Phiona’s story is remarkable, and while it’s obvious that shortcuts were taken, as they always are, in bringing her story to the screen, the inspirational aspects of her tale aren’t given short shift. Director Mira Nair (Vanity Fair) acknowledges the dire environment Phiona finds herself in without dwelling on it and keeps the story moving at a brisk pace. That she can find any sort of excitement in sacrificing pawns, queening or middle games is some sort of victory, as is not allowing the obvious sentiment of the story to become the focus.

Much of this is due to the efforts of the cast who realize that a subtle approach is necessary to help balance the more outlandish elements of the story, even though they might be true. Oscar winner Lupita Nyong’o (12 Years a Slave) as Phiona’s mother Nakku Harriet takes a role that might appear underwritten on the page, yet she imbues it with passion that elevates the character. While she often dispenses advice or listens to Phiona’s concerns, the actress’ ability to convey her thoughts and fears with a glance or inflection of her voice brings an authenticity to the character that the audience picks up on. Equally good is Oyelowo, who resists the temptation to play his character as a saint or savior but rather as a simple man who recognizes that the opportunity to help this girl has come his way and that it is his duty and pleasure to see it through.

Of course, much of the film weighs on Nalwanga’s shoulders and she rises to the challenge admirably. Never caught playing cute, the young actress has a genuine, unaffected quality about her that wins us over immediately. You can tell that she rises to the level of her co-stars in the scenes she shares with Nyong’o and Oyelowo and that in a sense, this young actress is learning how to perform in much the same way her character is learning chess – by leaps and bounds.

Yes, Queen of Katwe is a feel-good movie, something it makes no bones about, and it contains few surprises. Be that as it may, the inspiration it provides trumps these objections. The determination of its cast and director to tell Phiona’s story is central to the film’s success, their tenacity winning us over in the end. I have a feeling I know just who their model was in telling this prodigy’s tale.
For a review of Deepwater Horizon, go to the Cinemascoping blog at http://illinoistimes.com.

Contact Chuck Koplinski at ckoplinski@usd116.org.

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