If you want to see film stardom look as easy as laughter, watch Lupita Nyong’o and David Oyelowo in Queen of Katwe. The twosome give Mira Nair’s rainbow-toned pick-me-up about a young Ugandan chess prodigy exactly the magnetic charge it needs to stick.
Nair’s film tells the true tale of Phiona Mutesi (first-time actress Madina Nalwanga), who during her early teens made a square-by-square journey from a Kampala slum to international renown – via a game in which, thanks to the rule of promotion, the tiniest pawn can become queen of the board.
In her first live-action role since winning an Oscar for 12 Years a Slave in 2014, Nyong’o plays Phiona’s mother, a young widow raising four children in Katwe, a clattery township on the edge of the Ugandan capital. She’s a naturally proud woman. But she feels the weight of single motherhood in poverty like a yoke across her back. Nyong’o gives the kind of clear-headed, emotionally translucent performance that can make all of this clear in a single gesture or posture – or better still, just a growl or tut.
She’s initially suspicious of Robert Katende (Oyelowo), the bright-eyed chess coach at a local youth ministry who takes in her middle two children, Phiona and Brian (Martin Kabanza) – though it’s the promise of a free mug of porridge that gets them through the door. The other children tease Phiona over her body odour, and though she fights back, she also washes later. Next time, her hair clean and belly full, Phiona realises she’s a natural. A competition at a local private school opens a window on to another way of life – and later, a trip to an international tournament in Russia will broaden her horizons to snapping point. Chess might be just a game, but the difference it makes in her life is anything but.
Robert misses no opportunity to link chess to his young charges’ own hardscrabble existence: in life, as on the board, threats come from all angles, planning pays off, and safe squares can be found with enough forethought and a dusting of luck.
We already know from his turn as Martin Luther King Jr in Selma that Oyelowo can be stirring in a statesmanlike role, but here he brings a similar kind of moral conviction to a far humbler underdog character. Put simply, you care about the Katwe kids because he does, and in the same way, too – not with high-strung melodramatic concern, but a warm glow of empathy in your gut.
That’s stoked up in part by the film’s keen eye for telling, truthful-feeling detail. There’s a terrific scene early on in which an impromptu market springs up around a traffic jam in the Katwe township – motorists wind down their windows to do everything from buy maize to have their fingernails painted – which provides the kind of mud-spattered colour you’d imagine might work against the film’s sparklier obligations as a Disney production. Along with various sideshow dramas along the way, moments such as this set Queen of Katwe’s leisurely tempo, and also indicate its determination to do right by its subject. You could cut them to get to the point quicker, but as in chess, every piece here serves its purpose.
From a review by Robbie Collin, The Telegraph