Queen of Katwe
Directed by Mira Nair
Written by William Wheeler, based on an article and book by Tim Crothers
124 minutes, rated PG
3 stars

The fact that Disney is willing to make a film in the slums of Kampala tells us that things have changed at the once conservative Mouse House. The fact that the film they made is like a Sunday school prayer meeting, full of slogans and significant lessons about life’s challenges, tells us they still have a way to go.

It might seem mean to criticise a film so well-meaning. There are indeed things to like. The story of Phiona Mutesi’s rise from impoverished slum kid to chess champion is remarkable, and told with gusto by Mira Nair, who has lived in Uganda for 27 years. She has not sugar-coated the locations, which are confronting in their realism. She has, for balance, filled the film with colour and music and a sense of vibrant street life.

Katwe is the biggest slum in Kampala. Shooting there would have been both difficult and potentially dangerous, but it adds much to the film’s texture. The sense of reality is needed to balance Nair’s casting decisions, which bring two of the most beautiful people on the planet into roles that take some getting used to, for both the actors and the audience.

Kenyan actress Lupita Nyong’o (12 Years a Slave) is Nakku Harriet, the mother of Phiona. Harriet is a single mother of four children who sells vegetables in the market. She is poor, proud, fiery and fiercely protective of her babies, who live in a hovel and sleep on rags. Phiona, her second eldest (Madina Nalwanga), sells barbecued corn by the roadside to help feed her siblings – one of whom leads her to a falling-down shed where a missionary teaches chess.

David Oyelowo (whose parents are Nigerian) plays Robert Katende, who has taken up this work after an injury ended his dream of becoming a footballer. Robert is patient, strong-willed and open to this shy nine-year-old girl who shows an innate talent. The brood of Katwe kids, most of them boisterous boys, are brutal with the new girl until she starts beating them. They become her allies on the long road to the top. Chess is an entertaining blood sport in this context as Phiona’s aggression finds an outlet. She can see up to eight moves ahead of her opponents and she smiles as she wipes them out, a trail of dead queens from Katwe to the chess Olympiad in Russia.

Oyelowo gives a strong performance, given the difficulty of playing a saint. Nyong’o’s performance is similarly constrained by having to play a woman who’s very much alive. Madina Nalwanga, 14 at the time of shooting, had never acted before. Nair might have done more to get her to open up to the camera, given that she has to carry most of the film.

It is easy to see the attraction for Disney. While not exactly a rags-to-riches story, it is a form of the empowering princess story – a Disney staple. Phiona blossoms, like Pocahontas or Esmeralda, from modest origins to great achievement. The fact that it is largely a true story adds grit, but in controlled doses. Mira Nair (Salaam Bombay) has said she made the film without interference from Disney. We may assume then that the film’s quasi-religious tone comes from her desire to show positive images of African life, rather than the misery and mayhem we usually see. In fact, she shows us plenty of misery and mayhem as well – as Phiona’s older sister leaves to join the flashy criminals of the slum, eager for an easy way out of poverty. There is even a Biblical flood – which is no more than truthful, because Katwe is hit by horrendous downpours at certain times of year.

The problem in dramatic terms is that the script is so weighted down with significant metaphors and fridge door maxims that it sinks like a stone. ‘In chess, the small one can become the big one,’ says the little girl who teaches Phiona the basic moves. Clang. ‘You belong where you believe you belong,’ says Robert Katende. Has there ever been a line so freshly minted for export, or so glib? I guess those who still languish in Katwe, struggling to feed themselves each day, must not believe hard enough?