Most movies that fall under the umbrella of “feel good” have a few things in common. They’re often, to varying degrees, sentimental or agreeably superficial. They follow fairly straightforward emotional arcs that end in uplift—with a triumph or epiphany or a moral lesson learned. They can be guilty pleasures (Love Actually), nostalgic classics (The Princess Bride), romantic weepies (The Notebook), or tales of transformation (The Shawshank Redemption). Or, in the case of the latest Disney film Queen of Katwe, they can be biographical sports dramas.
Sports movies are especially prone to telling “feel-good” stories because they follow a simple formula: a protagonist’s journey to becoming a winner. And what feels better than watching someone struggle only to come out on top? The young woman at the heart of Queen of Katwe did precisely that. Directed by Mira Nair, the film follows Phiona Mutesi, a Ugandan girl living in the Kampala slum of Katwe who learns to play chess and quickly emerges as a prodigious talent despite not knowing how to read. Within a few years, she becomes good enough to play nationally—and then on a global stage. Today, she’s one of the first two women from Uganda to become titled chess players.
Like most feel-good films, Queen of Katwe doesn’t shy away from platitude-filled dialogue and “aww”-inspiring moments and meaningful swells of music. But neither does it feel like just another charming underdog story. Thanks in part to a wonderful lead performance by the newcomer Madina Nalwanga, Queen of Katwe offers a surprisingly nuanced portrait of a young woman learning—in the most difficult of circumstances—that “winning” can be a complicated joy. Victory sometimes equals redemption or happiness or money or fame, but it doesn’t always guarantee those things. Sometimes, winning can be confusing or isolating. Sometimes, it can even feel empty. These are unconventional, but worthy lessons for a family-friendly Disney movie like Queen of Katwe to unpack, and in some ways, the film’s streaks of realism—not fantasy—are what make it such a genuine pleasure to watch.
Queen of Katwe isn’t interested in offering an easily digestible account of Mutesi’s life, a fact that might help explain the film’s hefty 124-minute running time. The movie begins in 2007: Phiona and her younger siblings live with their widowed mother, Nakku Harriet (played beautifully by Lupita Nyong’o), in a hut they can barely afford with the money they make from hawking maize. Their community of Katwe is a desperately poor one, but Nair’s skillful directing finds the beauty in both the place and the lives of its inhabitants. The film neither pities nor romanticizes their poverty and industriousness. “How is your life, Phiona?” one neighbor cheerfully calls out to her by way of greeting early in the movie. “It is fine,” she replies with a smile that suggests by “fine” she means not “okay” but “wonderful.”
“Wonderful” is an optimistic overstatement, to be sure. Phiona only comes across a children’s chess club run by a local Christian ministry because she’s hungry, and they have free porridge. The other children aren’t kind to her at first (“She smells!” one screams), but their teacher, Robert Katende (played by David Oyelowo), welcomes her, saying, “This is a place for fighters.” Phiona’s curiosity is piqued when her peers begin to explain why they like the game so much. “In chess,” one boy says, “the small one can become the big one.” The David-and-Goliath metaphor is just one of many Queen of Katwe uses to sum up the existential appeal of chess: The game doesn’t care how strong or rich you are, but it can teach you to strategize your way to a better life. In other words, it’s about power and escape.
It’s no surprise that Phiona commits to practicing her game wholeheartedly, soon becoming the club’s best player under Katende’s dogged mentorship. The movie is loosely structured around her rise—through local tournaments, country-wide championships, the 2010 Chess Olympiad in Russia—and the many bureaucratic challenges she and her fellow teammates face. But in between these dramatic inflection points, Queen of Katwe carries out an intimate psychological and emotional study of its subject.
Nalwanga fully captures the ambivalence Phiona feels as she improves her game and eventually gains international attention for Uganda. At times, Phiona sees her talent as a weapon, as a way to knock her smug, wealthy opponents down a couple pegs. Other times, it brings little more than anxiety and self-doubt. The film wisely stops short of selling Phiona’s chess genius as some kind of golden ticket out of Katwe, and takes care to spend time with Nyong’o’s character, who tries to protect her daughter from danger and disappointment, while keeping their family afloat.
Queen of Katwe’s focus on its supporting characters is key: Woven into the tale of Phiona’s ascent is the belief that community is indispensable. As much as it celebrates its heroine’s intelligence and persistence, the movie isn’t in the business of monomyth-making. In addition to her mother and to Katende, Phiona is surrounded by sparkling characters—her chess-playing peers from Katwe, her siblings, her neighbors—who come to life thanks to the unknown actors who play them. Her triumph is the triumph of her hometown, a place very much unaccustomed to this kind of glory. Her pride is their pride.
While inspirational biographical films are some of Hollywood’s favorite projects to make, Queen of Katwe stands out for being a rare major studio movie with an all-black cast (including a female lead) that’s directed by a woman of color. Statistically, such movies barely exist. So when they do exist and they happen to be gorgeously shot, well-acted, and with an original story to tell, it feels like a clear victory for the industry, filmmakers, and audiences alike. There may be viewers and critics who, unfortunately, find it hard to look past some of the more familiar “feel-good” tropes to fully appreciate all the ways in which this film is a novelty. But especially coming after an atrocious summer-movie season and amid criticism of Hollywood’s problems with representation, Queen of Katwe deserves praise—both for the story it tells and how it chose to tell it.