In her new film, Queen of Katwe, Mira Nair casts a spell with color. She signals her interest in bright hues from the opening sequence, as three figures pass through the door to Uganda’s National Junior Chess Championship: Wunderkind Phiona Mutesi (Madina Nalwanga), with her tangerine sweater and pebbled headband; her coach, Robert Katende (David Oyelowo), in his neat floral button-down; and the chairwoman of her chess federation, sporting a long, smart dress of hot pink.
Arrayed in a small flying V, the trio becomes an emblem of the film as a whole, in which color is also texture and depth—a form of resistance to the treatment of the global South’s slum dwellers as a teeming, undifferentiated mass. It’s this empathic precision of swatches and shades that distinguishes Queen of Katwe from other inspirational sports movies. No reinvention of the genre, the film is nonetheless a rich and vibrant rendition of it, full of proof that the particulars of life in East Africa reward the keen eye’s attentions.
From the sunny compositions to the exquisite costumes, Nair crafts a remarkable sense of people and place for what is, in essence, a studio crowd-pleaser. As Phiona and her brother, Brian (Martin Kabanza), sell maize to support their widowed mother, Harriet (Lupita Nyong’o), in the Kampala slum of Katwe, the film neither dismisses their hardship nor revels in it, careful to sustain the spiritedness of bricklayers, chapati vendors, and streetwise hawkers alongside its suggestions of indigence and hunger.
As a result, the film emphasizes the enterprising intelligence of its characters: When the siblings stumble into Robert’s chess class, their makeshift boards are thrilling little fillips of invention; later, at home, the turquoise light catching on the bottle caps of their homemade set reflects the same blue-green spectrum of Phiona’s dress, or the checkerboard blanket they play on. The film is so suffused with these lively details—lime-green earrings and high-shouldered gowns—that the palette itself assumes a starring role.
Against the formulaic rhythms of the screenplay, adapted by William Wheeler from Tim Crothers’s account of Phiona’s real-life coming of age, Queen of Katwe’s energetic images become a kind of syncopation, akin to the strains of hip-hop we hear in the shoreline market: “Bring the flavor to the fish, bring the flavor to the rice.” Phiona, it turns out, possesses a preternatural talent for chess, soon able to see eight or nine moves ahead, and under Robert’s tutelage, she and her classmates venture into the wealthier districts of Kampala, to Sudan and thence to Russia, competing in rarefied air.
As far as the film’s structure goes, Queen of Katwe hews close to expectations. The charming Oyelowo spars with the understated Nyong’o as Robert, a dreamer, confronts Harriet, a pragmatist, to win her blessing for Phiona’s training; snobs from more refined schools cast doubt on the hardscrabble team’s abilities. Queen of Katwe is, in the narrative sense, a mere fulfillment of familiar tropes, though it approaches the genre’s conventions with a light, funk-inflected touch. As one of Phiona’s fellow students proclaims before their first big tournament, for instance, the “Richie Riches” are no match for the “Katwe Cool Kats,” and the film evinces similar confidence.
Though the film’s use of chess as a metaphor for life is rather strained (“You must never surrender,” Robert tells Phiona as she topples her king), its perception of chess as a symbol of class divide, and of the resilience displayed by those for whom educational and economic opportunities are scarce, is potent. As Nair contrasts school and soccer uniforms with the Katwe kids’ chaotic bursts of color, or glimpses stern, hard-edged Harriet in breathtaking shades of vermillion and gamboge, the form of the film, if not its plot, points to the possibilities that inhere in defying expectations.
As if to correct the worst commonplaces of Africans’ depiction in the mainstream American cinema, Queen of Katwe focuses not on ceaseless strife or faceless crowds, but on the coexistence of distinct individuals within the collective, whether it be the family, the chess team, or the Kampalan slum. By the time the film returns to that first, forthright sequence, after all, we know that Phiona’s choice of orange is a variation on her mother’s color, and her step forth into the next challenge a variation on her mother’s strength.