The collaboration between Walt Disney and ESPN -- an intra-conglomerate partnership, of course, as ESPN is owned by the Walt Disney company -- has now yielded another heartwarming international tale based on a true story. The first was 2014's Million Dollar Arm, starring Jon Hamm. It followed a down-on-his-luck sports agent who travels to India for an American Idol-style pitching contest designed to recruit international baseball talent. Queen of Katwe is the second. It's out Friday in wide distribution and chronicles the rise of a Ugandan chess prodigy, Phiona Mutesi. She becomes one of Africa's most inspiring players in large part because of her slum origins.
Starring David Oyelowo as Phiona's coach, Lupita Nyong'o as her mother, and introducing the young Madina Nalwanga as the chessmaster herself, the film is an uplifting family story with just about all the necessary pre-packaged ingredients to make it an underdog classic. As true stories often are, this one is based on a work of journalism -- an article by Tim Crothers for ESPN Magazine, later expanded into a book.
Phiona lives in a hut outside Kampala, selling corn and scraps of food alongside her younger brother to make extra money for the family. They live with their single mother (Nyong'o), who resists cultural expectations that she prostitute herself or find a sugar daddy to pay the bills. Nearby, an engineer named Robert Katende (Oyelowo), who can't find work, takes a part-time job with the local ministry of sport. When he learns that some of the slum children won't play soccer -- if they get injured, they can't afford the medical bills -- he teaches them chess, having sharked himself to win money from college-going "city boys" in his youth. The slum children then become fanatical proponents and practitioners of the game. Phiona is their champion. At first, the macho youngsters are reluctant to cede supremacy to the unassuming Phiona, whom they mock for her poverty and uncleanliness, but they soon are her fiercest supporters and advocates. This supporting cast of slum children is as memorably rambunctious as any from Disney's live-action line-up in the 90s.
Oyelowo and Nyong'o shine in their supervisory roles, both noble and principled in the face of various pressures. (And do rest assured that Oyelowo and Nyong'o will be the faces of Hollywood's "Africa" slate for the foreseeable future). In one touching scene, Robert Katende, having taken his team to a tournament at a "city school" in Kampala, discovers that the children are frightened and homesick. He performs a story for them, an allegory which -- despite his goofy histrionics to cheer them up -- reminds them that in everything they do, they are fighting for their lives.
Phiona's success means she is exposed to a world beyond her slum; indeed, a world beyond Uganda. And a familiar friction emerges. Phiona's mother blames Katende for showing her daughter a world to which she will never truly belong. But Phiona's rapid ascent in chess never detracts from her wisdom and compassion (or at least never for long). She tells a Ugandan chess federation that the only reason she wants to participate in international tournaments is because she has heard grandmasters make money, and she wants to provide for her family.
A generation ago, Disney's formula in this arena was to tell tales of underdogs as they prevailed in America's major sports: The Sandlot, The Mighty Ducks, The Big Green, The Little Giants. These days, the approach is more global and more true-to-life. But Disney still understands that the underdog story, from a narrative perspective, is still the best one worth telling. (Even if chess isn't a 'sport,' in the traditional sense.)