When you’re told a story, fairytale or real-life based, there should be a message that is able to rise above its state of veracity and become instantly relatable. The most effective stories can take a message and make it resonate within every person regardless of shared personal experiences. A story of adversity is simple to empathize with, but the compelling true underdog story inside of Queen of Katwe is powerful enough to inspire.
Lupita Nyong’o delivers an unforgettable performance full of pain and power. For most of her scenes, all it takes is a single expression and an emotive grunt to understand what Nyong’o’s character is feeling. Her portrayal of Nakku Harriet goes beyond just great acting. In the film, Nyong’o personified not just the spirit of womanhood, but also the indomitable strength of motherhood. As a single mother, she embodies the love, determination and especially the sternness that comes from a single parent home. Yes, I am speaking from experience, but her portrayal transcends our personal experiences and turns into a universal understanding.
Lupita is far from the only notable performance in this completely character-driven film. David Oyelowo performs outstandingly as a good samaritan who dedicates his life to helping those less fortunate. Through him, we learn to appreciate the game of chess past the surface level excitement of the game. Screenplay writer William Wheeler successfully adapts Tim Crothers’ novel and makes sure the central idea shines. Chess is more than a game because it serves a more powerful position as a metaphor for life. Sometimes it takes a great deal of hard work and sacrifice to win the game. It also preaches the idea that it takes a keen mind to find your way out of seemingly hopeless situations.
Queen of Katwe is brimming with optimism, even at its lowest points. In concert with the rest of the cast, debuting actress Madina Nalwanga leads the story by epitomizing the unbreakable sense of hopefulness that threatens to intoxicate the film. Phiona’s personal journey is the focus of the film, which takes place over the span of several years. This gives Nalwanga a chance to shine in the film, showing her impressive acting range as her character comes of age through the story’s narrative. Her charm and poignancy radiate through her character and enchant us from beginning to end.
Acclaimed Indian director Mira Nair takes this fairly standard underdog tale and turns it into a feat of gorgeous filmmaking. Nair takes us through a tour of Uganda with her camerawork, lingering on shots of nature and the environment. She forces us to become familiar with the landscape so that we can better relate to the film. Sometimes, it does feel like we’re overstaying our welcome as the pace becomes inconsistently slow, but overall it is an effective technique. There isn’t a single part of this film that feels exaggerated or fake. We are shown everything as it truly is, from the crumbling slums to the vibrantly colored clothing. This attention to detail gives the film an engrossing genuineness that is impossible to ignore, and why would you even want to?
The level of meliorism in Queen of Katwe is part of its greatest strength, but not without consequences. The darkest moments in films like these also let them shine the brightest after they’ve overcome adversity. By glossing over some of the true darker moments in the history of the characters, the film has an oversweetness that borders on sugarcoating. Things like the death of a sibling or the basic acknowledgment that their father died of AIDS would have greatly helped to even out this film while also giving light to a major problem in Africa.
As it stands, the film’s message isn’t limited to its location. It provides inspiration for anyone in a similar situation anywhere around the world. Positive female representation is one of its best attributes, and having it being a person of color makes it just that more socially necessary. Queen of Katwe is able to easily overcome its handful of flaws to become a beacon and standard for future live-action Disney’s films.