I’ve soured on the sports drama. Tired and clichéd, few of these films stray from the prototypical narrative: an underprivileged yet gifted athlete crosses paths with an excellent coach, who sacrifices work, family and the like for the pursuit of success. The athlete struggles at first, but begins to ascend at a rapid pace, gaining confidence — to a fault, perhaps — until they lose a crucial match. Then, through a humbling and rededication to intense training, the proverbial trials and tribulation, the young prodigy outperforms the old master and emerges victorious in a final competition. Cue credits. Oh, and for an extra little kick, add in a white savior narrative. Maybe you’ll end up with an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay.
“Queen of Katwe,” the latest film from trailblazing director Mira Nair (“Monsoon Wedding”), strictly conforms to this narrative structure, but it manages to add a bit of spin on the genre. First, the film is about chess, and despite the stationary nature of the game, “Katwe” moves rather quickly thanks to kinetic cinematography by the wonderful Sean Bobbitt (“12 Years a Slave”) and quick editing by Barry Alexander Brown (“Do the Right Thing”). It’s incredibly lean. No second is wasted, and every scene offers critical information.
At times, the film’s score, composed by Alex Heffes (“The Last King of Scotland”), bristles with vivacity. That, combined with occasional slow motion flourishes, grants us the ability to experience what our protagonist, the gifted Phiona (newcomer Madina Nalwanga), must feel as she approaches each match.
Second, the film is set in the titular Katwe, one of the outer slums of Kampala, Uganda. Far from the typical American landscapes of other feel-good Disney films, Katwe is harsh but culturally rich. Ugandan pop music plays throughout the film and each shot is full of vibrant color. Nair, a Kampala resident, is uniquely able to bring the city’s communities to life. It’s a sort of reclamation of the Africa that has been defined by Western description: a land of destitution and disease. There’s plenty of that in Nair’s Uganda (the film takes place in a slum after all) but it’s not her focus. Rather, Nair turns to the socioeconomic dynamics in Kampala: the city skyline looms in the distance and casts a shadow over the slum. The young Katwe chess players, led by their coach, Robert Katende (David Oyelowo, “Selma”), are awestruck when they first encounter the wealthy secondary schools of the city.
“Katwe” also offers an unusual depth of character, though it is limited by the common tropes of the genre. Oyelowo gives as rich a performance as ever. Lupita Nyong’o (“12 Years a Slave”), who plays Phiona’s beleaguered and overwhelmed mother, confirms her status as one of our greatest living actors. And the Katwe children, entirely new actors plucked off the dirt streets of Katwe, bring a fresh vivacity unmatched by other films that used similar casting methods, like Laurent Cantet’s “The Class” and Naji Abu Nowar’s “Theeb.”
There isn’t anything terribly new to discover about the human spirit here — as always, we have to try hard to succeed and we shouldn’t give up — but the film tells these canonical lessons better than its predecessors. These lessons are as old as time, but Nair’s direction breathes new life into them.
Of course, “Katwe” fits cleanly within the Disney “feel-good” family sports drama genre, which is to say it comes with its fair share of flaws. The story’s structure is mostly unoriginal and its plot is predictable, though with a true story such as this one, there isn’t much to do to fix it without betraying the source material. Katende’s speeches and coaching are overwrought with chess-themed maxims that may make you roll your eyes more than a few times. There is also the occasional dramatic saturation: scenes that needlessly add to the weight of the film. A brief scene in which Katende tells a story of his mother comes to mind. Heffes’s score can also verge into John Williams-impression mode, with clear orchestral swells meant to signal a key emotional moment.
“Katwe” reminds me of another film, “Wordplay,” a documentary about a crossword puzzle competition. Both prove that the specific is universal. Both depict a niche activity, one that is hard to depict as entertaining. Yet both succeed in showcasing talent and ambition in all aspects of life. We need more adventurous films like these.