Review: ‘Queen of Katwe’ a winning underdog tale

Chess movie uses game board as a metaphor for life

Adam Graham
The Detroit News

Chess movies are like boxing movies, in that they use the particulars of the game board as a metaphor for life the same way boxing movies use the inside of the ring.

“The Queen of Katwe” does skillful work adapting the chess board to the world of Phiona Mutesi (bright newcomer Madina Nalwanga), a Ugandan teen who uses chess as a way to move ahead in her tiny village existence.

In this based-on-a-true-story inspirational tale, Phiona sells maize for her mother (Oscar winner Lupita Nyong’o) to help feed her family. She discovers chess, thanks to local youth worker Robert Katende (David Oyelowo), who sees something in her when he witnesses her fending off bullies picking on her for her hygiene.

“This is a place for fighters,” he tells her, igniting her inner fire.

Phiona’s natural ability at chess allows her to quickly eclipse her mentor, and soon she’s off to big tournaments, seeing parts of Africa and the world she’s never seen before.

Director Mira Nair (“Monsoon Wedding”) glosses over the nuts and bolts of chess, and sometimes struggles to dramatize Phiona’s matches, relying on Nalwanga’s eyes and facial expressions to tell the story. But Nair brings a worldly texture to the film and grounds it in a way that makes it a relateable underdog tale for all.

This is a Disney film, so you know the beats, and “Katwe” hits them all. In the movie, Phiona can see eight moves ahead, and “Queen of Katwe” often feels the same: You know what’s coming, but it doesn’t dilute the feeling of victory.


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‘The Queen of Katwe’


Rated PG for thematic elements, an accident scene and some suggestive material

Running time: 124 minutes