Blu-ray Review: Queen of Katwe

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Disney's Queen of Katwe is an uncommonly subtle, genuinely inspirational biopic focused on Ugandan chess champ Phiona Mutesi. Set in the Ugandan slum of Katwe, preteen Phiona (Madina Nalwanga) develops an interest in chess after being encouraged by Robert Katende (David Oyelowo), who teaches the game to youths. Unlike many films that focus on talented individuals who are non-white, there is no "white savior" here (see Disney's McFarland, U.S.A. and Million Dollar Arm, for a mere two examples). While that undoubtedly hurt Katwe's commercial prospects, it raises its artistic bar considerably. Kudos to Disney for resisting any temptation to try to reframe the story to include a "point of reference" for the more closed-minded of viewers.

Now that Queen of Katwe is available for home viewing (Blu-ray, DVD, Digital HD, Disney Movies Anywhere), hopefully it secures a larger audience than it did in theaters. 

Queen of Katwe 1.jpg Note that the movie, under the sturdy but far-from-flashy direction of Mira Nair, takes a bit of patience. At just over two hours (do keep watching after the credits begin—the real individuals portrayed in the film join the actor who portray them, complete with biographical updates) it's a methodically-paced story. And it's basically the same underdog story you've seen before in countless sports-oriented films. But things are also more cerebral as Phiona discovers that studying chess unlocks the potential of her mind. In a Rocky film you get pulse-pounding training films, but Katwe isn't leading up to a fight in front of a gigantic crowd. The triumphs here are of a decidedly lower-key nature.

The cast is uniformly effective, including Lupita Nyong'o as Phiona's ever-struggling mother. Life in the slum of Katwe isn't depicted as a terribly depressing existence. The reason for the de-emphasis on the harsh realities of life in such a downtrodden region seems to be twofold. For one, the tone of the film is clearly meant to be as family-friendly as possible. To their credit, the filmmakers have not gussied up Katwe with cutesy cuddliness. Beyond any commercially-motivated impositions, director Nair appears to have intentionally sidestepped clouding her film with an overly pessimistic atmosphere. The only inherent, "baked-in" issue that Nair doesn't quite overcome is just how hard it is to make chess visually engaging. Just go with it though, the rewards are there for those who give Queen of Katwe a chance. 
 rsz_queen_of_katwe_bd.jpg Special features—Disney has assembled a relatively impressive package. Audio commentary by director Mira Nair, a generous 20 minutes of deleted scenes, a three-part featurette series (totaling 30 minutes), A Fork, A Spoon, & A Knight short film about the real Robert Katende, and a featurette about Alicia Keys' "Back to Life" soundtrack song (plus the video itself and another for "#1 Spice," also on the soundtrack).

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Chaz Lipp writes for The Morton Report.

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