THERE’S A NOT INSIGNIFICANT legacy of terrible movies about poor brown kids being taught out of poverty by godly white people like Sandra Bullock. Mira Nair’s Queen of Katwe isn’t one of those movies. The lack of a white savior spares this Disney family film from being a schmaltzy embarrassment. Is that faint praise? Yeah, maybe.
Queen of Katwe’s protagonist—a Ugandan tween named Phiona—dominates at chess with the help of a teacher, yes, but that teacher is a black, Ugandan one, Robert (David Oyelowo). Robert teaches the slum kids chess because these kids are fighters, and chess is a game for fighters. The scrappiest, fightiest of them all is Phiona (Madina Nalwanga), who quickly demonstrates that just because you can’t read, that doesn’t mean you can’t slay all day on the chess board. It’s based on a true story, BTW. Awesome!
What I liked about Queen of Katwe is something mainstream American audiences rarely see: an inspiring family film that doesn’t try to gloss up the protagonist’s impoverished backstory. Also, Phiona’s rise to chess prodigy seems realistic in that obviously all precocious tweens are occasionally also asshole jerk tweens, and while Phiona’s mom (Lupita Nyong’o) is appropriately supportive, she’s also like, “Hey, chess doesn’t pay the bills, so can you still work?” Humans don’t have to be flawless to have interesting, valuable stories to tell. These are not magical black people. They’re just people.
Families looking for a not-cartoon movie to see together should know, however, that Queen of Katwe isn’t a fast movie. It’s not short, either. It’s maybe meant for the children and families who have the patience for stuff like chess in the first place. So yeah, it’s a little boring, but if “not racist” and “for smart kids” is your family’s deal, Queen of Katwe might be a movie for you.