In 2002, a program called Chess in the Schools brought tutors to my New York City classroom to teach 30 rambunctious six-year-olds the rules of chess. I latched onto it quickly and enthusiastically, catalyzed, admittedly, by the not-insignificant crush I’d developed on my instructor. But Mr. Klein’s chiseled cheekbones aside, chess was the perfect avenue to satisfy our childhood urges in a civilized way — the competition, the bluster, the problem-solving, the chase and escape, the capturing of pieces (or, as we less elegantly described it, the “eating”). And, of course, the winning. It all came back to the winning.
Disney’s Queen of Katwe, which features an all-African cast and direction by Mira Nair and was released Sept. 30, captures all of these facets about chess and far more. We witness Phiona Mutesi, portrayed by newcomer Madina Nalwanga, living in a slum of Kampala, Uganda, in 2007 with her three siblings and mother, Nakku Harriet, played by Oscar winner Lupita Nyong’o. When Mutesi stumbles into a makeshift chess class, lured by curiosity and a cup of porridge, we wait with bated breath for her emerging greatness. Her brilliance comes at such an accelerated, almost rushed pace that we are scarcely able to savor her prodigious ascension, save for shots of practicing with bottle caps on cardboard by candlelight. Before long, she is crushing her teacher, shyly, even apologetically, mumbling, “I wouldn’t do that if I were you, coach…” and he is regarding her with awe — “…you can see eight moves ahead?” he asks in disbelief.
Despite Mutesi being the eponymous “Queen of Katwe,” Nalwanga occasionally comes across as flat and out of her depth. She does, however, excel at one-liner quips in response to opponents’ taunts — “You don’t know much, do you?” a girl leers as she takes Mutesi’s queen; “I know a bit,” she replies slyly, and then checkmates her — the requisite cinematic mic drop.
Chess coach Robert Katende, portrayed by David Oyelowo of Selma fame, and Nyong’o burn most brightly. Harriet possesses wit, pose, beauty and perseverance in spades enough to make her a celestial body in her own right, yet we never doubt it is her children around whom she revolves. Through her too-limited screentime, Nyong’o creates a depth of backstory and struggle, often without a single word. If Nyong’o does not score another Oscar for this role, I hereby swear to cover collegiate sports for the Wheel. Oyelowo is similarly magnetic, assisted by the unequivocally good, though predictable, dialogue and plot points he is assigned. How can we not feel indebted to him after witnessing him open his home and risk his career to educate these children from the slums?
It is impossible to refrain from weaving chess metaphors when they are so accessible, and Katende is the ideal vehicle to carry them in. He brims with inspirational platitudes for chess and life, like “Do not be quick to tip your king,” “What matters is when you reset the pieces and play again” and my personal favorite, “Sometimes the place you are used to is not the place you belong.” You should not be ashamed for aiming higher being better . You can beat boys in chess and win the boys’ trophy. You can obliterate players who can afford uniforms, private school and imported Russian coaches — chess is an equal opportunity battlefield. And there is also the recurring theme of queening, that “in chess, the small one can become the big one” against all odds. These metaphors work, but we can only hear them so many times before feeling our intelligence is being insulted.
That is not to say Nair does not exercise nuance. We expect and root for Mutesi to win. And we do see the winning. But more importantly, we see how victory can feel as divisive as losing. After achieving modest fame, life in Katwe is no longer sufficient; Mutesi has flown in planes, swam in pools, slurped down frozen mocktails — a victor should not be doing lowly household chores. “They will not be able to return to their old lives because they have tested yours,” Harriet cries to Katende, and this moment hits far too close to home. Every child of immigrant parents who have wanted better for their children is familiar with this schism — the thoughts that occupy their minds and days now soar far above their parents’ desires for them. They are experiencing more, and better, than they ever have, and suddenly what was once enough isn’t any longer.
Ultimately, my grievances are two-fold. First, Katwe is for people unfamiliar with chess. Mutesi makes rookie errors no one in contention for Master would conceivably make, and her opponents are floored, their shock emphasized in painful closeups, by all-too-obvious maneuvers. The second is the sense of inexplicable ease — obstacles are built up only to be overcome seconds later, never maturing into fully realized plot points — e.g., Harriet’s refusal to allow Mutesi to play. In spite of the fact that Queen of Katwe is based on a true story and filled with suffering, like the heartrending moment in which Harriet and her children are evicted from their home and must wander the streets hungry, the film still feels overly saccharine and unrealistic.
But you cannot fault a feel-good movie for being a feel-good movie.
In one scene, Harriet dons a breathtaking traditional dress, rich with color and vivid patterns. She is the most stunning vision in sight, even among the sweeping shots of African landscapes and marketplaces. She presents herself to a former flame, and for one wild moment we believe that she will give in to prostitution — but then we realize how foolish we are, and scold ourselves. Women, the film shows us, are resilient, powerful and proud, and Harriet exemplifies these qualities. She sells the dress — her mother’s heirloom — to purchase extra paraffin so that when Mutesi extinguishes the candlelight by which she is studying, Harriet merely steps out from beneath her blankets, bends down and silently lights it again. She may not understand it, but against her initial reservations, Harriet does everything in her power to bolster her daughter to success. Katwe is a story of womanhood, motherhood, empowerment, sacrifice and community, revealing that none of these can exist without each other.
What Queen of Katwe attempts, it does well and beautifully, even if its attempts are obviously to create knots in throats, like when Mutesi promises Harriet, “I will give you a house one day,” and at the conclusion does just that, or when the closing credits are of the actors’ interactions with their real-life counterparts, anchoring the film to reality. It is authentic, this says. So feel free to cry. Disney is a practiced veteran of convincing viewers to open up their hearts, only so they may be squeezed and broken.
And so, when we see Mutesi clinch the biggest victory of her life to date in 2011, we cannot help but erupt — the coronation is complete. Long live the queen.