With Queen of Katwe, Mira Nair has, as in Mississippi Masala (1991), put Uganda once more on the world map. Based on a true story, QoK is a simplistic tale of an 11-year-old who is plucked from virtual obscurity to being a global chess player.
It’s 2007 in the poverty-stricken slums of Katwe, in Kampala, Uganda. Widowed Nakku Harriet (Lupita Nyong’o) struggles to bring up her two sons and two daughters. Even basic education is out of the question as there is barely any food to go around. There’s Robert Katende (David Oyelowo), a former football player turned missionary who has his heart in the right place. Supported by his wife, he trains the ‘Pioneers’ — a group of local youth in football and chess. Sensing prodigious talent in one of his wards Phiona (debutante Madina Nalwanga), he trains her in the board game. Katende’s perseverance takes Phiona from her school to local to national upto the world stage in a span of four years.
Mira Nair embeds thought provoking philosophy by way of slogans, such as ‘Your life is what you make of it’ or ‘Come let us reason together’ to infuse a sense of fortitude in Katende’s protégés.
At a shade over two hours-QoK is an easy-paced film, not wearisome even for the non chess-player. With the naivety of children and their joie de vivre seeping through despite their stark and abject poverty, Mira Nair infuses enough metaphors to give the film an unpretentious feel, yet thoroughly absorbing. Lupita Nyong’o as the mother striving against all odds in bringing up her four children, including her wayward elder daughter Night, is excellent. Nair has the ability to draw out admirable and accomplished performances from new-comers (Salaam Bombay) and in QoK too, it shows.
The cinematography of the Kampala shanties is appealing, while Dinaz Stafford, who had done the casting for Nair’s Mississippi Masala, Kama Sutra, etc., is spot-on here too.