Triumphs must be weighed in relation to the obstacles involved. For Usain Bolt, the world’s fastest man, beating people in a footrace might not be much of a challenge. For Phiona Mutesi, a teenager from a slum in Uganda’s capital, becoming her country’s best female chess player is an accomplishment that shakes the stars.
Walt Disney Co. depicts her journey in dignified, charming, Hollywood style in its new biography, “Queen of Katwe.” The film comes mostly from “The Queen of Katwe,” a book by University of North Carolina teacher Tim Crothers, which told her story in less glamorized style.
That’s not to say director Mira Nair and screenwriter William Wheeler make Phiona’s neighborhood prettier than it is or overdramatize life in Kampala, where prosperous citizens assume Katwe residents can’t contribute to society. Yet the main characters behave so faultlessly, courageously and wisely that they become a collective candidate for canonization.
No setback upsets coach Robert Katende (David Oyelowo), who creates a chess club to give smart youngsters in Katwe a shot at self-esteem. Harriet, Phiona’s firebrand of a mother (Lupita Nyong’o), tirelessly works for her children and forgives all transgressions. Phiona herself (newcomer Madina Nalwanga) might have a crying jag when she’s beaten in a Chess Olympiad in Russia, but she never shows signs of envy, temper, gloating or other teenage behavior.
The honesty of the performances more than makes up for slight amounts of hokiness in the telling. Oyelowo, best known as Martin Luther King Jr. in “Selma,” has the natural grit and integrity of the Katende depicted by Crothers. Though Harriet comes off as low-key in the book, Nyong’o gives her a ferocious protectiveness we can believe. Nalwanga, who makes a quietly powerful debut, has the natural gravity we see in photos of the real Phiona.
Nair, who’s based in New York, has long had a home in Kampala and conducts an annual film lab there for emerging East African artists; Nyong’o, who was raised in Kenya, attended one. Nair knows how Katwe looks and how Ugandans speak and behave. (Watch Nyong’o as she moves away from us, hips bobbing, like a woman used to walking with baskets on her head.)
The actors worked hard to sound authentic — Nalwanga didn’t have to, as she’s Ugandan — and visible and audible authenticity come through in every scene. Young folks playing Phiona’s sister, brother and chess friends have never acted, but spontaneity makes every one of them appealing.
Cast: Madina Nalwanga, David Oyelowo, Lupita Nyong’o, Martin Kabanza, Taryn “Kay” Kyaze.
Director: Mira Nair.
Screenwriter: William Wheeler. Based on the book by Tim Crothers.
A Walt Disney Studios release. Running time: 124 minutes. Adult themes. Playing at area theaters.