On its surface, Queen of Katwe comes across much like most other biographical dramas. We have a main character starting from a very low point, young Phiona Mutesi (played by Madina Nalwanga) dealing with poverty in this case, who finds a narrow door into a larger, more spectacular world. Growing up as a middle child in Katwe, Uganda, Phiona has very few options available to her, that is until she discovers a love of such a narrow door: chess.
Though the movie unfolds much as you’d expect—complete with a mentor in the form of “Coach” Robert Katende (played by David Oyelowo)—Queen of Katwe has something more grounded to say about exceptionalism and how a simple game like chess can so easily provide poignant character drama illustrated by such things as pawns becoming “the big one" when they reach the end of the board.
We’re introduced to Phiona through the lens of how she relates with her family, notably her single mother, Harriet (played by Lupita Nyong’o). Her family unit depends on her to help sell maize so they can eat every night and pay rent. And she must also be available to take care of her younger brothers at a moment's notice.
It’s these constraints that probably push the curiosity in Phiona to explore a game like chess through a sports ministry program elsewhere in the village, and it isn’t long before Coach discovers she has an incredible gift for the game, despite being quite uneducated.
So yes, there’s little surprise to be found in Queen of Katwe, aside from the astute observations a biopic can provide and terrific performances, a highlight being Oyelowo and Nyong’o whenever they’re on screen together.
But what’s most impressive about this inspirational film is its real sense of authenticity in just about every level of the production. This is a “big” Disney movie with all African actors, not a single white savior archetype, and a director who lived in Uganda for decades (Mira Nair).
It’s oft said by artistic naysayers that the best candidates for film work should be selected across the board, and Queen of Katwe is finally a true example of that for the right reasons. There's a true air of genuine talent for the film that elevates its true story status to incredible heights.
What will really come down to the film's reception for most audiences, though, is the balance of optimism and realism in how Uganda is depicted, and according to each character. There’s trauma shared by all players, and it never goes too far into unearned sentimentality.
Phiona is never presented as a wish fulfillment character ever able to rise above her oppression. Instead, she’s believable and therefore likable as a flawed, evolving person as the movie tells her story over the course of five years. Queen of Katwe is better for this overall, but it’s hard to deny that most story beats can be seen coming a little too early, putting the audience as far ahead of the game as Phiona seems to be when she’s staring at that board.
You can blame this on the fact that this is a biopic, all you want, but the truth is that this a formulaic story told in a very risky way, which is more compliment than criticism.