Inspirational can be a dirty word at the movies, suggesting fake uplift and sugary excess. There’s none of that in Queen of Katwe, the true story of a preteen chess prodigy from Uganda whose skill and backbone took her out of the village slums and onto a world stage. Directed by the great Mira Nair (Salaam Bombay, Monsoon Wedding, The Namesake), from a script by William Wheeler, the film – laced with grit and grace – hits you like a shot in the heart. Nair catches the thrum of real life without skimping on the hardships that comes with lack of food and education; she gets us so close to Phiona Mutesi (Madina Nalwanga) that we walk with her and see what she sees. Her widowed mother Harriet (Lupita Nyong’o) sells corn at a village food stand to support Phiona and her two younger brothers. Her teen sister Night (Taryn “Kay” Kyaze) has ridden off with a dude on a motorcycle to sample the high life in the capital city of Kampala.
Phiona’s choices seem non-existent until she meets Robert Katende (a superb David Oyelowo), a soccer player turned missionary. Robert uses an abandoned church to set up a chess club for the youth of Katwe. He soon realizes that Phiona is a natural, blessed with the ability to suss out an opponent and predict his next move on the board. “This is a place for fighters,” Robert tells her. Phiona is willing. The resistance comes from her headstrong mother who worries that the false promises of a larger world might corrupt her child. Nyong’o, in her first major screen role since winning an Oscar for 12 Years a Slave, is phenomenal, with a soulful beauty that cuts deep. She’s unflinching in revealing a woman whose outward show of brash attitude masks the pressure of holding to the ground while the ground keeps shifting.
And the wonderfully empathetic Oyelowo is stellar as a man with a vocation he thinks he must abandon for an engineering career that can better support his wife and child. The British, Nigerian-born Oyelowo has proved himself an actor of extraordinary power in roles as diverse as Dr. Martin Luther King in Selma and the resentful son of a White House servant in The Butler. As Robert, the actor radiates warm humor and quiet strength. It’s a mark of the film’s avoidance of Hollywood contrivance that no romance is trumped up between Robert and Harriet. Oyelowo and Nyiong’o are both extraordinary, giving newcomer Nalwanga a chance to shine as Phiona grows from a child into her own woman.