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Madina Nalwanga and Lupita Nyong’o from ‘Queen of Katwe’

Disney’s Queen of Katwe is a winning international tale about an uneducated Ugandan girl trying to support her family who wanders into a chess club and discovers she has an innate talent and passion for the game. That might just prove to be her escape.

Queen of Katwe refreshingly goes against the grain of many other movies based on true stories. And what appeals the most to our red-blooded American instincts are sports dramas about plucky underdogs. This year at the Toronto International Film Festival, I caught two boxing flicks — The Bleeder and Bleed for This — that centered on unlikely fighters who seized moments of glory and triumph from what should have been humbling defeats and setbacks. 

Within that world of sports movies, Disney as a studio likes to cash in on family-friendly renditions of sports dramas where the games or fields of play merge with the usually innocent characters, the players in love with competition and the parents, scouts and coaches who see and are inspired by this purity. And it must be noted, in most cases the protagonists are generally white men.

Think of The Rookie, the 2002 movie that captures the dream of a 39-year-old high school teacher and baseball coach (Dennis Quaid), who challenges his team to play its best by agreeing to a professional tryout if the team wins a championship. That aging coach somehow gets signed, spends time in the minor leagues and then gets called up to the big leagues, where he gets to pitch against the Texas Rangers. Or fast-forward to 2014 and Million Dollar Arm, which tells the story of a sports agent (Jon Hamm) who pursues an unconventional recruiting strategy, seeking talented South Asian cricket players for coveted spots as pitchers in Major League Baseball. The fact that the agent actually discovers a pair of non-traditional cricket-playing recruits takes a backseat to his emotional arc.

So Queen of Katwe is a departure from the Disney formula. One of the two runner-ups at Toronto for the Grolsch Audience Award, the film’s narrative began as an  ESPN Magazine article by Tim Crothers that evolved into a book, which screenwriter William Wheeler and director Mira Nair (Monsoon Wedding) have crafted into a story about the Ugandan girl Phiona Mutesi (Madina Nalwanga), whose future changes thanks to that chess club run by Robert Katende (David Oyelowo).

Queen of Katwe is, first and foremost, an African story. It’s rooted in the experiences of Phiona, her coach and her proud yet distrustful mother (Lupita Nyong’o). The mother, based on her own reality, cannot see how chess will lead to anything other than the rampant abuse and molestation that befalls young girls in Ugandan villages. 

Unlike say, Boaz Yakin’s dark 1994 crime thriller Fresh, which also employed the game of chess as a strategic tool for an imperiled young protagonist, Nair exposes the harsh economic and societal situations under the blaring light of day. This forces audiences to witness Phiona’s struggles, while also refusing to mask or obscure things with needless talk about the game.

Without a doubt, chess “saves” Phiona, but redemption doesn’t come from the individual pieces or their moves on the board, which is meant to mirror aspects of her life. What transforms Phiona is the sense that her indomitable spirit, her willingness to fight, will triumph when pressed into service in a concrete and focused way. That triumph doesn’t result at the expense of others in any life-altering manner — unlike in Fresh, where pawns and other “pieces” are removed from the game of life.

Audiences can appreciate Queen of Katwe as yet another underdog story spit out by the Disney team, even though Nair’s film doesn’t shy away from the difficult concerns about how rising in the world of competitive chess has a truly complex impact of the lives of Phiona and her family. 

We see the difficulty Phiona has adjusting to the perks of traveling to tournaments where she receives preferential treatment, but then must return home to such bleak contrasts. Queen of Katwe is a tough triumph of will that doesn’t limit itself by focusing so narrowly on the game alone.  (Opens wide Friday) (PG) Grade: B