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Queen of Katwe Movie Review

Queen of Katwe Blu-ray + Digital HD cover art
Queen of Katwe is now available on home video. Read our review of the Blu-ray.

Queen of Katwe (2016) movie poster Queen of Katwe

Theatrical Release: September 23, 2016 / Running Time: 124 Minutes / Rating: PG

Director: Mira Nair / Writers: William Wheeler (screenplay); Tim Crothers (book)

Cast: David Oyelowo (Robert Katende), Madina Nalwanga (Phiona Mutesi), Lupita Nyong'o (Harriet Mutesi), Martin Kabanza (Mugabi Brian), Taryn "Kay" Kyaze (Night), Ivan Jacobo (Young Richard), Nicolas Levesque (Older Richard), Ronald Ssemaganda (Ivan), Ethan Nazario Lubega (Benjamin), Nikita Waligwa (Gloria)

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Few people would consider chess a sport, but Queen of Katwe is definitely a Disney sports movie nonetheless. It is an ESPN Films production, having hailed from a book published by the cable sports network.
It's also a true drama intended to inspire and a modestly-budgeted off-season release with no franchise and merchandising prospects. Disney doesn't make a lot of live-action movies in house these days, but around one in three of them employs the sports movie mold that Katwe relies on.

Phiona Mutesi (Madina Nalwanga) lives in the slums of Katwe, Uganda, one of three children of young, hardworking widow Harriet (12 Years a Slave Oscar winner Lupita Nyong'o). Even among the impoverished youths of her neighborhood, Phiona stands out for the way she smells. She timidly drifts into a chess program run by out-of-work do-gooder Robert Katende (Selma's David Oyelowo) and does not back down amidst the insults slung in her direction.

Disney's "Queen of Katwe" stars Madina Nalwanga as Ugandan chess prodigy Phiona Mutesi.

As you can predict, Phiona has a gift for the game that has her beating most of her peers. It's not natural God-given talent; she thinks a lot about the game and spends a lot of time playing it with Robert's group. The persistent Robert raises the funds need to enter the kids into a tournament held at King's College Budo, opening the children's eyes to the comforts of higher education while striking them as something from another planet.

As you also might expect, Harriet isn't sold on the idea of her daughter playing chess. The mother gets by on hard work selling food in a marketplace and she expects her daughter to follow in her footsteps. Harriet's elder daughter has run off with a guy and seemingly strolled into a life of prostitution. Knowing she can hardly afford the rent on their modest home, Harriet doesn't want to fill Phiona's mind with hopes of a better life she cannot give her. But the more air travel, trophies, and tasty food and drink Phiona experiences, the more she wants to succeed to the level of grandmaster.

Katwe is directed by Mira Nair, a respected and seasoned Indian filmmaker whose credits include Monsoon Wedding and The Namesake. She is a bigger talent than Disney usually recruits to helm their sports movies, but the results aren't terribly different, as the film still falls into the "good, but not quite great" zone it shares with most of the class.

Phiona's coach (David Oyelowo) talks with her mother (Lupita Nyong'o).

Katwe doesn't have any huge surprises up its sleeve to justify running just over two hours and feeling even longer.
Part of you hopes the film will avoid relying on the one big match climax that is essentially inevitable in the world of sports movies. It does not avoid that trope, but at least it keeps it brief with the conclusion of a scene established at the very start.

Scripted by William Wheeler (The Hoax, The Reluctant Fundamentalist), Queen of Katwe is a film that no one will dislike. About the closest reaction to that imaginable would be a student resisting being forced to watch it by an overzealous teacher they don't like. It's not as if chess or African culture are overrepresented in American film. This may lack the visceral impact of something like Slumdog Millionaire, but its depictions of such a different way of contemporary living still intrigue and compel.

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Related Reviews:
Now in Theaters: Deepwater Horizon Sully The Magnificent Seven Bridget Jones's Baby Storks Snowden
David Oyelowo: Selma Captive A Most Violent Year The Help Lincoln The Paperboy Lee Daniels' The Butler
Lupita Nyong'o: The Jungle Book (2016) Star Wars: The Force Awakens
Sports: Million Dollar Arm McFarland, USA Soul Surfer Eddie the Eagle Secretariat
Chess: The Dark Horse Pawn Sacrifice Life of a King | Africa: The Good Lie Cheetah A Far Off Place Magic Journey to Africa
Directed by Mira Nair: Amelia New York, I Love You | Written by William Wheeler: The Hoax

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Reviewed September 30, 2016.

Text copyright 2016 DVDizzy.com. Images copyright 2016 Walt Disney Pictures, ESPN Films, John B. Carls, Cine Mosaic, and Mirabai Films. Unauthorized reproduction prohibited.