On the face of it, Queen of Katwe looks the archetypal underdog story. It therefore represents an especially attractive fantasy, one where someone burdened by disadvantage – here, Phiona Mutesi (debutante Madina Nalwanga), a teenage girl living in the Uganda slums with her mother (Lupita Nyong’o) and siblings – harnesses their natural talents to achieve success.
Where most such stories suggest that talent is sufficient to overcome structural advantage, Queen of Katwe digs deeper. An aptitude for chess – and the assistance of a caring coach (David Oyelowo) – makes Phiona the youngest to represent her country in chess, but it doesn’t present an immediate solution to larger problems, from class discrimination to the manifold challenges of abject poverty.
Director Mira Nair dampens the excitement of Phiona’s success by offering a realistic consideration of these challenges. Notably, the significance of gender is considered carefully (especially considering this is a Disney film), with Phiona’s mother and sister (Taryn Kyaze) finding their own paths through a world where sexuality is a commodity. The screenplay leans on chess metaphors a tad too often – of course the climactic match is won by Phiona ‘queening’ a pawn – but charismatic performances from both Nyong’o and Oyelowo largely absolve such complaints.