Queen of Katwe (2016)

I did not think there were so many ways to compare chess to life.

Really. I think there was a chess-to-life metaphor every ten minutes in this movie, and even though I always listened to them, they started to wear on me.

Queen of Katwe is the latest inspirational, true-to-life sports film from Disney, following McFarland, USA. It revolves around Phiona Mutesi, a Ugandan girl who at 16 became a Chess Master, and the film chronicles her introduction to the sport, as well as her quick understanding and dominance of it, all while her mother (Lupita Nyong’o, 12 Years a Slave) tries to survive in their village.

There is a lot of good work in this film. It was directed with care and humor by Mira Nair from an adapted script by William Wheeler. The performances range from good to exemplary, and the art direction is entirely appealing.

It’s just that most of the film felt routine. I hate that. Chess, like writing, is mentally exciting in an almost entirely passive way, and it’s near impossible to portray actively onscreen. This is why many films about writers or chess players resort to a familiar structure, or focus on other aspects of those people’s lives, in this case on the girl’s mother and the girl’s coach (David Oyelowo, Selma).

When I said that the performances ranged to exemplary, those were the roles I meant. Perhaps the film’s saving grace is that Nyong’o and Oyelowo are so brilliant, arguably two fo the finest actors working today. Even the starring role by Madina Nalwanga is endearing, if not a bit too reserved. I really didn’t care about the chess matches, if I’m being honest, but these performances made me care about the people playing them.

By the time the final credits rolled—which by the way are wonderful—I was torn. Like in a winning game of chess, all the right moves were played, all the right ingredients tossed in the formula. It’s just that, like Phiona, I could see them a few moves ahead, and that bothers me.

3 Yellow

Queen of Katwe is in theaters now.

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