Mira Nair's Queen of Katwe is a true-life tale transformed into an inspirational fable. That's not novel for the movies, but in this director's hands, the results are mostly enchanting. The film follows Phiona Mutesi (Madina Nalwanga), an impoverished Ugandan girl who became a chess champion at the age of 10, and the part-time soccer coach who helped her get there. You don't come to a movie like this expecting complexity, depth or even subtlety. But Nair brings both simplicity and verve in relating this charming story.
Phiona lives with her mother Harriet (Lupita Nyong'o) and siblings in a crowded Kampala slum, selling maize on the street to eke out a living. She wanders into a chess club led by Robert Katende (David Oyelowo), an out-of-work engineer and church soccer coach who himself has started to teach the game to kids who can't cut it at sports. Robert sees chess as an equalizing, transformative force, a strategic endeavor that can give power to the powerless and upend social structures. Aspiration is always inspiration in underdog sports movies, where every game is a chance to show up the wealthy, the powerful, the privileged. That formula evidently extends to inspirational board-game movies, too.
The drama comes less from the girl's attempts to excel at chess and more from her daily life -- especially since her hard-working, long-suffering mother views both chess and Robert with some suspicion. Nyong'o gives impressive shading to a character who could have easily come across as a shrill obstacle, and the director builds entire ecosystems around her characters -- bustling worlds where joy, menace, duplicity and acceptance are often inextricably linked.