Friday, September 30, 2016


Opening this weekend:

Considering how few people play or understand chess, it’s surprising how many movies about chess there are, and how enjoyable a lot of them are. We watch the actors move the pieces around the board, and dramatically react to these moves, and just sort of take the film’s word for it that we’re seeing tactical brilliance. There are life-and-death chess games, like Karloff versus Lugosi in The Black Cat, or life-versus-death chess games, like in The Seventh Seal, or magical chess, like in Harry Potter.

Then there is chess as the subject of a standard inspirational underdog sports flick, as in Searching for Bobby Fischer in 1993 and Pawn Sacrifice, which was about Fischer, two years ago. Disney’s Queen of Katwe is of this sort. 

The real-life heroine is Phiona Mutesi, who around five years ago, in her mid-teens, began winning junior chess championships in her native Uganda, and representing that country in international tournaments. What made this remarkable enough to be the subject of an ESPN book by Tim Crothers wasn't just the excellence of Mutesi's play but the circumstances of her background: She was from Katwe, a massive slum neighborhood in Kampala, where she worked selling maize in the street for her widowed mother. According to the movie, she was illiterate when, by chance, she learned to play, and she learned to read mainly so that she could study chess manuals.

If you're cringing already, granting that it's a wonderful story but worried about a Disney-fied tone of cultural condescension and saccharine uplift, have no fear. The script, adapted from the Crothers book by William Wheeler, undoubtedly follows the Rocky/Hoosiers template. But the director, masterly Mira Nair of Salaam Bombay!, avoids the potential schmaltz in the yarn without sacrificing its potent emotion, and she shows her usual skill at giving third-world settings their teeming, at times almost epic due without denying or sanitizing their squalor and hardship.

Best of all, she gets terrific performances. There are two star turns, from Lupita Nyong'o as Phiona's desperately wary mom, and by David Oyelowo as her saintly mentor and teacher. But Nair's real triumph was with the kids; chattering in their oddly-inflected, somehow musical cadences, they're believable and funny. Especially fine is Madina Nalwanga as Phiona, whose uncertain but probingly intelligent gaze suggests that she has inherited, along with a high fighting spirit, some of her mother's fretful distrust of good fortune. It's easy to believe that she's a natural at chess. She always seems to be thinking many moves ahead.

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