Film: Queen of Katwe
Cast: David Oyelowo, Lupita Nyong'o
Director: Mira Nair
In a year littered with sports biopics, Mira Nair's tribute to Uganda and its favourite daughter, chess prodigy Phiona Mutesi may not be the sports film we wanted, but it certainly is the sports film that we all need to watch. Perhaps calling Queen of Katwe a sports film is a bit of a stretch, seeing as how there's very little 'sporting' action - and chess not being the most pulsating game to watch. But make no mistake about it - this is a fantastic film, enhanced by great storytelling and even better acting.
Queen of Katwe is particularly refreshing because it doesn't constrain itself to telling Phiona's story from age A to age B, touching on popular plot points C, D and E. Possibly because so few people have heard how this ten-year old daughter of a vegetable vendor in the slums of Katwe, in Uganda, Mira Nair has had the freedom to craft a lot more into it. Not only do you get to see the squalor, the pain, the absolute fight for survival and small things like electricity, a roof, food even, that exist in pockets of Africa, you also get to see how far the power of one man's persuasion can change a whole lot of lives.
The characters that Nair portrays in Phiona's world - as she discovers chess and how good she is at it - are not merely support-cast mention-worthy. They are as important as Phiona herself and are given the space and time to prove their worth on screen. Particularly good are David Oyelowo (who plays her coach Robert Katende) and Lupita Nyong'o (who personifies her confused, long suffering but strong mother with such conviction that it carries the film). Oyelowo, who inspires the slum kids to stay away from drugs and play chess, is perfect as the coach who has big dreams for the rag tag bunch. Its also a brilliant contrast in how different things are in Uganda at a time when even villagers have smartphones in Cambodia.
As Phiona plays her pieces at tournaments across Uganda, Africa and then in Russia, there's a brilliant contrast in how the kid from the slums is at a loss while experiencing menial comforts - like a comfy bed, a room with a roof or food that doesn't need to be eaten out a trophy, because there simply aren't enough plates. Especially when she heads home after each triumph and seems at ease in the abject squalor.
Full credit to Mira Nair for having made a film that can make you laugh and cry in equal measure, while telling one of the most inspiring sports stories there is to tell. Even if it takes 124 minutes to tell it!