The fact that a true story like Queen of Katwe—first a book, then adapted into a film by Mira Nair—exists is reason enough to feel happy and hopeful. Here’s why: The film revolves around a pre-teen girl, Phiona Mutesi (Madina Nalwanga), living in the slum of Katwe in Kampala, the capital of Uganda. Forced to sell maize at an age when she should be in school, Phiona slowly gets interested in chess, but the odds are heavily stacked against her. How heavy? Tim Crothers, The Queen of Katwe’s author, puts it thus: “To be African is to be an underdog in the world. To be Ugandan is to be an underdog in Africa. To be from Katwe is to be an underdog in Uganda. And finally, to be female is to be an underdog in Katwe.”
Someone like Phiona makes you want to forget cynicism, indifference, and resentment, and instead hope that her story ends on a happy note. Chess is not just a sport for Phiona; excelling in the game would mean fame, respect, and financial stability, a final chance to break the cycle of poverty, to escape Katwe. All of this is quite evident, but Nair still chooses to explain everything. Early in the film, Phiona’s first instructor, a young girl, says, “In chess, the small man can become the big man. That’s why I like it.” Not long after, Phiona’s coach, Robert Katende (David Oyelowo), tells her, “Follow your plans, and you’ll find your safe square.” Later, we hear, “Do not be quick to tip your king, Phiona”, “you must never surrender”, and so on.
Nair often implies that we’re watching an important story, through its characters’ long earnest monologues about toughing it out, doing the right thing, holding on to shreds of hope—and it does start to get a little tiring. But, more crucially, Nair relies on dispensing information—through dialogues and gestures—till the point where nearly every audience member has got it. We understand quite early that Robert’s students aren’t welcomed in a city school for a chess tournament. The school principal disapproves of their participation several times, and, a few scenes later, when a student of the same school shakes hand with Phiona, he wipes his hand with a tablecloth in front of her, just in case we had forgotten what this school and its people were like.
Similarly, the fact that the kids from Katwe are uncouth, as compared to the city slickers, is revealed through multiple scenes of similar nature. The Katwe kids pounce on a plate of fried chicken served at lunch. Most of them don’t know how to use knives and forks. They loudly clang their glasses. The principal, being both patronizing and condescending, calls them “unprivileged”, who need to be trained to behave well. All of this, in fact, could have just been conveyed through one well-written scene, but Nair, for some strange reason, chooses to use the crutch of repetition. This doesn’t seem like sure-footed direction, but one that’s constantly looking for validation and assurance. Even some of the plot points (especially the bit where Phiona becomes slightly cocky, leading to her first major defeat) come across as obvious and formulaic, taking refuge in a predictable space.
Nair, however, even though sporadically, does show what she’s really good at: bringing a heartfelt scene to life with astonishing accuracy and economy. Take, for instance, the scene where the kids of Katwe sleep on the ground, huddled together, instead of sleeping comfortably and separately on the beds given to them by the school. Or the scene where Phiona, on a flight for the first time, flying literally above the clouds, points outside the window and asks Richard, “Is this heaven?” And he simply goes, “No, heaven is slightly higher.” Or the scene where Phiona finally realises, after having briefly lived an affluent life in a foreign country, how poor her family really is, and the shame that comes with it.
Unlike most assured and well-made films, however, Queen of Katwe doesn’t allow us to create our own meanings, fill in the gaps for ourselves, because this movie, insular and inflexible, prefers to spell everything out for us. Be it the relationship between Richard and Phiona; Phiona and her mother, Nakku (Lupita Nyong’o); or Richard and Nakku; nearly everything is verbalized in the film, nudging us to feel about its people and world in a certain way, keeping us at an arm’s length. Which is a pity because a film like this—humane, sincere, and timely—also needed a shot of confidence and self-belief.