It’s becoming increasingly more common to see films marketed to a global audience, likely due to equal parts decline in domestic ticket sales for non-tentpole releases and increased spending power in various foreign markets. Whatever the reason, though, a film like Queen Of Katwe almost feels inevitable in that, while being a Hollywood-style, inspirational sports narrative with all the inherent genre trappings, it is also simultaneously an exclusively foreign-based story, and while it features American actors it does not once mention the United States in a cursory or audience-pandering way. This is a pretty great thing when you consider what this means for exposing world audiences to one another’s cultures, but even setting aside the potential impact of this film, Queen Of Katwe is a pretty great piece of cinema in its own right.
Based on the true story of a Ugandan chess prodigy growing up in the slums of Katwe, the film plays out the basic beats of a sports underdog narrative pretty much exactly as you’d expect: newcomer Madina Nalwanga plays Phiona Mutesi with a focused sense of self-confidence and self-doubt that oscillate at the respective highs and lows of her story; David Oyelowo takes a turn as her charitable chess coach who eventually finds himself outclassed by her abilities and does every conceivable thing to help her achieve beyond her financial means; and Lupita Nyong’o plays Phiona’s proud mother who barely scrapes by and fears that exposure to a better life will leave Phiona dissatisfied with her present, seemingly permanent, circumstances. All three leads deliver powerhouse performances, but Nyong’o steals the show with the level of nuance and relatability she wordlessly conveys though a character that another film or another actor would have simply cast as an obstructionist villain.
In fact, Queen Of Katwe is rather clever in how it chooses not to portray any character as a direct antagonist to Phiona’s success. Sure, she runs into classist institutional barriers and individual opponents whom she must defeat at the game, but none of these people feel as if they are out to get her directly, and mostly everyone is just either a competitor or a supporter to Phiona and her team. The true antagonist of the story is actually poverty, which isn’t so much an obstacle that Phiona has to learn to overcome as part of some hackneyed “hard work conquers all” moral as it is a bar to Phiona realizing her true potential. The film makes very clear that Phiona’s biggest obstacle is a lack of self-worth rooted in the society that allows her and her family to survive through begging, while the omnipresent lure of prostitution promises at least a marginally more affluent life. It’s very powerful to see just how hard it is for the lowest of classes to gain the least amount of recognition for their talents and worth, which in turn makes it all the more powerful to see someone from those circumstances struggle and succeed to be recognized.
That said, the film isn’t perfect, particularly in how it is edited. Many scenes, especially early on, seem to cut prematurely, as if the filmmakers recognized that they had too much footage for a film they didn’t want to exceed two hours but didn’t have a lot of material they could afford to leave on the cutting room floor. This also comes across in snippets of scenes that hint at more deeply explored subplots, such as a tangent about Phiona’s sister’s pregnancy that is never really expounded upon. I don’t really fault the filmmakers for that choice, considering that a formula piece shouldn’t test its audience’s patience with an overlong runtime, but it’s a noteworthy fault in an otherwise fantastic film. Queen Of Katwe isn’t a film that will surprise you, but it does offer some of the best performances this year and presents its narrative in a manner that is sure to leave a lasting impression in its audience’s minds. If this is what we have to look forward to in a future of global cinema, the future cannot come soon enough.