Living in the slum of Katwe in Kampala, Uganda, is a constant struggle for 10 year old Phiona Mutesi (Madina Nalwanga) and her family. Her world changes one day when she meets Robert Katende (David Oyelowo), a missionary who teaches children how to play chess. Phiona becomes fascinated with the game and soon becomes a top player under Katende’s guidance. Her success in local competitions and tournaments opens the door to a bright future and a golden chance to escape from a life of poverty.
It is easy to forget sometimes that Disney doesn’t just make animated films but they also do live-action films too. They have not had the best run with live-action films as of late but this new addition looks to stop this trend. Of course being based on a true story, I haven’t heard about it. While I may be unfamiliar with the story but the prospect of Oyelowo and Lupita Nyong’o starring gives it promise.
The plot shares a similar format to other live-action family films in that a hero overcomes adversity from either their environment or their upbringing and finds success. This is kind of what happens here but the film is much more than that. Phiona Mutesi (Nalwanga) is a 10 year old girl living in the slums of Uganda. One day she meets a man named Robert Katende (Oyelowo), a missionary with a passion of teaching children to play chess. He teaches her how to play and she becomes a chess prodigy.
Along the way, she had to deal with her mother Nakku (Nyong’o). Being a single mom, the family must all work together in order for them to survive. She also has become more protective of her children. Even though she was protective of her children, the film did not depict her as an overbearing caricature. She was concerned but she never held Phiona back.
As much as this film was about Phiona and her rise to a Ugandan chess champion, it was also about her growth as a girl. The film feels more grounded as Phiona took a different path here as the film told its story in a different way. It spoke to Phiona’s environment and how she had to overcome it to get to where she is. The film did this through contrasting her environment with that of the richer, more fortunate children who she competed against. We learn how these people were concerned of having “unclean” opponents in close proximity to them.Watching these poor children encounter this divide was very interesting as were there individual experiences with it which furthered the film’s contrast.
The character of Katende was fascinating in that he wasn’t as special as one would expect. He may be slightly better off than Phiona but their lives are very similar. He wants to be able to provide for his wife and daughter but he also wants to take care of all his kids with whom he has grown quite fond of. His view of the world was much different than that of Phiona’s and the contrast between them made their relationship work more. This also helped his relationship with Nakku. He basically became the father that Phiona never had. The film devoted some time to his personal life but it would have been nice to see more since it didn’t go anywhere. The chemistry between all three, especially Phiona and Katende, made them all great to watch.
Phiona’s progression was compelling to watch because she was so likable. It was easy to get invested in her journey. She stumbled onto chess by chance and as she started to get better, she started to like it more and more. She was proud of herself as this was something she wanted. As she had glimpses of what her life could be, distance began to build between her and her mother since she represented her old life. This relationship felt real but the film could have gone further with it as it comes off as barely connected to the rest of the plot. Some of the conflict she creates also felt forced.
The acting here was excellent throughout. Oyelowo was full of charm and had fantastic screen presence as Katende and was fun to watch. Nyong’o was a believable mother, having some great moments. The two held back, giving a chance for Nalwanga to shine and that she did. She effectively showed her character’s sheer determination while still being vulnerable. Her scenes with Oyelowo’s Katende were the best part of the film as we got to see the growth of their relationship. The film is also a little too long, clocking in at just over 2 hours. This is due to it overplaying the whole poor angle.
Overall, this was an enjoyable, slightly familiar coming of age story, told in a different way that stills falls victim to its conventions but is elevated by the performances.