That grande dame of international cinema Mira Nair gives a gritty Third World texture to “Queen of Katwe,” a faith-based Disney drama about a poor, illiterate Ugandan who masters the lethal intricacies of chess.
It’s a conventionally inspiring feel-good dramedy with a lightness that Nair (“Mississippi Masala,” “The Namesake”) ably gives weight with on location veracity. Her directorial eye, trained on the slums of India (“Salaam Bombay”), knows where to look to find the beating heart of the Katwe ghetto of Kampala, Uganda.
“Queen” is about Phiona (Madina Nalwanga), a shy child who sees no future beyond the daily struggle to shuck and sell maize (corn) on the crowded dirt streets of Katwe. Her widowed mother, played by Oscar winner (“Twelve Years a Slave”) Lupita Nyong’o, has lost one child, is about to lose Phiona’s pretty/flirty teenage sister (Taryn Kyaze) to the first guy who pays attention to her and is struggling to pay the rent on their shanty and keep them all fed.
And that’s when an under-employed engineer forced to take work as a youth soccer coach decides what this neighborhood’s kids need is chess. Robert Katende (David Oyelowo of “Selma”) is an earnest, generous do-gooder determined to find something for the kids who can’t or won’t play soccer to do.
Chess? “It teaches discipline and mental strength.” Her brother (Martin Kabaza) drifts into it. Phiona follows him.
Even at that local level, among the lowest of the low, Phiona is an object of scorn and teasing. She smells “like a pig.” She can’t read, doesn’t talk much. But she can see the board, reason through problems, and as her teacher teaches, “make a plan” to escape the dangers her opponents put her in.
Nair and screenwriter William Wheeler (“The Hoax”) simplify chess, letting an adorable younger girl (Nikita Waligwa) explain its rudiments to Phiona.
These pieces? “They kill each other.”
“In chess, the small one can become the big one.”
And this? This is the Queen, “the most powerful of all the pieces.”
Phiona is a quick study and soon is making all the unsportsmanlike boys pout.
“A girl has given you checkmate!”
Nair’s ear for the music of English as a second (African) language is uncanny, and she leaves the thick accents intact, complete with non-verbal vocalized expressions of disgust, amazement and delight, African kid equivalents to “gee whiz” and the like.
The story arc, based on a true story first published by Disney’s ESPN, follows Phiona and the Katwe kids to posh private school tournaments and into international play. Nair lets us see Phiona’s determination — studying and practicing by paraffin lamp light, learning to read so that she can read books on chess — as a combination of nature and nurture.
Nyong’o never lets the mother, even in her most fraught moments, ever seem less than fierce, and even when Phiona turns cocky as gifted kids often do, that upbringing is the rock she leans on.
Young Nalwanga has a first-time actress’s stiffness, but a beatific smile. She lets us see the potential her coach does. And Oyelowo ably delivers the film’s aphorisms and life-lessons to Phiona and her “pioneer” teammates.
“Sometimes the place you are is NOT the place you belong.”
In lesser hands, this could have been patronizing (a common problem of Disney “African” films of the past) and heavy-handed. Nair downplays the faith part of “faith-based” and focuses on the class warfare — unmannered and uncultured poor kids proving they can hold their own, intellectually, with the uniformed upper-class private school dandies.
It’s overlong and rarely surprising, but Nair skillfully plays the limited board this story gives her, a queen among filmmakers making all the right moves.
MPAA Rating:PG for thematic elements, an accident scene and some suggestive material
Running time: 2:03