The Pawn Queen

There are football movies, there are dance movies, and then there are chess movies. Correction: there aren’t many chess movies. That’s probably because chess rolls at a slightly different pace and a mildly tamer volume. Football players train to run harder, throw farther, yell louder, etc. But chess? It’s not as easy to show training montages when reading a book and repositioning a knob sum up the adventure. Chess isn’t a game of action; it’s a game of staring. But when the person moving the pieces can also move mountains, then Queen of Katwe proves we may find a story worth telling.

Disney brings us to the slums of Katwe, Uganda, where Nakku’s (Lupita Nyong’o) children sell maize to afford dinner. Her daughter, Phiona (Madina Nalwanga), doesn’t seem to mind this life. In her words, “It is fine.” But Phiona is a curious girl and is dying to know where her little brother goes after he’s emptied his basket. So she follows him. To Phiona’s disbelief, her brother spends his afternoons at a chess club under the supervision of Robert Katende (David Oyelowo), a kind man who provides food, a strategy lesson, and boundless optimism to anyone ready to listen – including Phiona. To everyone’s surprise, she picks the game up quickly and wipes the floor with her more experienced clubmates. Robert recognizes a prodigy and readily demonstrates the opportunities that chess can offer to the underprivileged. He nurtures Phiona and introduces her to the world beyond the slums, which in turn encourages Phiona to study, grow, and win.

No part of Phiona’s life is easy. Nakku does her absolute best to keep her children fed and away from dangerous men. Her priorities are less tuned to a solid education and more worried about a solid house built for a flood. Lupita Nyong’o is a master in this role. She is sharp and fierce and deeply loving. It’s hard to weigh the sort of choices Nakku has to make between her life and her children’s; should she give Phiona a chance to get out, or force her to earn money for the family food fund? From Nakku’s perspective, a calling is something you do to avoid responsibilities. What does it matter how good you are at a board game if there’s no water, shelter, or lamp oil?

If it weren’t for Robert, Nakku would never see that a little risk can yield a high reward. Robert Katende is everyone’s favourite teacher. Beyond math and manners, his secret mission is to make his students better human beings and offer a smile on an endlessly rainy day. Robert is whatever his kids need him to be: a resource, an opponent, a father-figure, a story-teller… He is optimistic where Nakku is realistic, and the combination of the two boosts Phiona to surprising heights.

True to Disney formula, Queen of Katwe proves that even the unluckiest has a chance at greatness. As the Blue Fairy says, “Prove yourself brave, truthful, and unselfish, and someday, you will be a real boy.” But Phiona’s story isn’t about rags to riches, misfortune to glory, or wood to whale food; it’s about a hidden genius without a glimmer of privilege who discovers her talent and becomes unmanageably cocky. As soon as Phiona tastes a bit of the good life she forgets the importance of her responsibilities. It takes a slap in the face from reality to teach Phiona the significance of modesty.

Chess may not be the most exciting sport to frame a movie – waiting for the results of someone’s thinking is hardly my idea of an action-packed afternoon – but Queen of Katwe manages to counter the quiet strategy with the reality of slum life. This is the most interesting part of the movie. The chess matches are important, but Phiona’s life is remarkable. Chess comes easily to her; poverty comes easily to no one. Queen of Katwe is worth a watch because of the everyday struggle, not for the competitions – unless “pawn takes rook” really gets your juices flowing. Queen of Katwe is a classic story of beating back the gators and fighting the current to get to the raft. 6.5/10.

“I don’t need to sneak.”