The van in which chess coach Robert Katende shuttles his charges has a sticker on the back reading “challenges are not a curse.” It’s a message that’s oft reiterated throughout the inspiring “Queen of Katwe,” directed by Mira Nair. The true story of a young girl from the Ugandan slums who became a chess champion and grand master has many of the same gentle and profound truisms that would make apt bumper stickers.
It’s all in line with the uplifting and emotional story rendered with a lively vibrancy by Nair and her stars, Lupita Nyong’o, David Oyelowo and newcomer Madina Nalwanga. “Queen of Katwe” tells the story of Phiona Mutesi, a teenage girl raised in the slums of Katwe in Kampala, Uganda, whose prodigious gift for chess, despite a lack of formal education, raises her family out of poverty and abjection. Phiona and her brother Brian (Martin Kabanza) work to make money, selling maize in the market and on the streets, until they are drawn in by altruistic Robert (Oyelowo), who teaches the local children to play chess.
Phiona is so gifted at the strategy of the game that she quickly evolves past beating the boys in her group and even at the local school tournaments, where the slum kids stand out among the formal, uniformed students. She moves on to international tournaments and dreams of qualifying as a master so she can receive a stipend to help her family.
Her mother, played with a sense of alternating fierce pride and vulnerability by the magnetic Nyong’o, is too proud to ask for help in their desperate situation. A widow and mother of four, Harriet and her children are evicted from their home, squatting in a roofless building, scraping together a meager living.
Coach Robert fosters and recognizes Phiona’s talent as best he can, though he’s torn between providing for his family in material ways and providing support to the children in his community. He is a font of inspirational modeling and messaging for the children, and while his mottoes could become cliche, coming from Oyelowo, they are entirely heartfelt.
Nair excels at capturing the essence of Katwe, this lively community that may be stricken with poverty, social ills and environmental disaster but suffers no shortage of hopes, dreams and interconnected unity and pride. She ably shows the culture of the place, from the wild, traffic jam marketplaces to the more treacherous underbelly of dangerous young men on motorbikes and the women who are entranced by them.
The best parts of the film involve the dynamite younger actors who have been cast as Phiona’s teammates and comrades. Each has his or her own unique personality and quirks, and they are an absolute joy to watch. Nair lets their performances do the talking, and they are completely charming.
Easing into the third act, the film drags a bit as Phiona endures and learns to overcome setbacks, and the oft repeated encouragement becomes a bit rote. Nair doesn’t quite nail the cinematic suspense of the chess matches, which has been accomplished in other films of this nature (the similar Cliff Curtis film “The Dark Horse” has a bit more vigor). The emotional core of overcoming adversity and finding the strength to rise above one’s own circumstances is the truth here — chess is simply the vehicle for that story.
‘QUEEN OF KATWE’
Starring: Lupita Nyong’o, David Oyelowo, Madina Nalwanga, Martin Kabanza
Rating: PG for thematic elements, an accident scene and some suggestive material
Running time: 2 hours, 4 minutes
Theaters: Cedar Park, Hill Country, Round Rock, Southpark, Tinseltown, Westgate