Queen of Katwe is a remarkable evolution of the Disney/ESPN credo. While it treads familiar territory – believe in yourself; never give up on your dreams – it does so in a context of different, heightened risk.

The biographical drama follows the life of young Ugandan girl Phiona Mutesi as she rises from absolute poverty in the slums of Katwe to become an international chess champion. It’s an unusual project for producers Disney and ESPN (though not as much for director Mira Nair), boasting a predominantly black cast and an Afro-centric internationalist perspective. The obstacles faced by the film’s characters include homelessness, hunger, gender politics and even sexual predation.

Phiona (a seamless Madina Nalwanga in her debut role) lives with her mother (a strong Lupita Nyong’o), older sister and two younger brothers. They eke out a difficult living selling maize. Soon, Phiona and her brother become involved in an outreach ministry chess program, run by the endlessly generous Robert Katende (David Oyelowo). The game teaches them strategy, discipline and self-worth, in the spirit of any proper sports drama.

The Katwe team is a ragtag group of variously adorable children, each with quirks that supply the film with levity and humor. With a little persistence from Katende, the chess players are pitted against “city children” at a fancy private school. When confronted with the immense privilege of the campus, the team begins to crumble.

The portrayal is a little in-your-face – the children’s eyes go wide, some suffer panic attacks, and in the end, they’re efficiently calmed by Coach Katende’s motivational speech. But that doesn’t stop the message from resonating.

From a decisive victory (against a boy!) in this first contest, Phiona rises through the chess world’s ranks. The contrast in privilege becomes an ever greater burden as she returns time and again to an unchanged life in Katwe. But Katende is determined to forge opportunity for this self-effacing prodigy.

Queen of Katwe is a girl power narrative: Phiona’s strength is center stage and explicitly framed as a precious inheritance from her mother. Yet the film doesn’t exclude or demean its male characters. Katende is an immaculate force for good throughout, and the male members of the chess team are sweet, smart boys. To achieve this balance is impressive, though greatly helped by a rather lightweight approach to Katwe’s gender politics.

The ending sequence of the film is a jarring reality check. In turn, each of the cast members, poised in an empty room, is joined by their real-life counterpart. These are not flawlessly beautiful actors. Life’s relentless onslaught manifests itself physically. Watching the stunning Madina Nalwanga sell maize and wade through waist-high floodwaters is stirring, to be sure, but her smoothed-out presence denies the full burden of Phiona Mutesi’s situation. In the same way, the inspirational plotline is, on the one hand, a refreshing look at Africa that allows American audiences to see reflections of themselves and not some unrecognizable “other.” But it is likewise smoothed and polished. The story runs and resolves too easily. The audience leaves all warm and fuzzy. Is that truly real life?

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