First Hit: Although this is a wonderful story, the film's representation did not do it justice.
Confusion is what I felt through much of the early part of this film because we go through 8 years of time, as noted by the overlays on the screen announcing each new year, without any discernible physical changes in the characters. The subject, Phiona Mutesi (Madina Nawanga), is followed from before her teens to her mid-teens with virtually no change in her looks. We all know that these are years in which a person changes a lot physically, but here there is nothing and therefore confusion in each scene because we really don't know how old she is until context is given. The story is wonderful. It is about Phiona, who comes from the poorest of the poor in Uganda, where her mother is raising 4 children by herself, finds herself in Robert Katende’s (David Oyelowo) church where he’s teaching chess to young children. She sits down and becomes fascinated by the movement of the chess pieces and soon she is spellbound by the game. Quickly she learns that she naturally understands the complexities and challenges of the game, which also allows her to escape her limited and difficult life. From this point of view, the film and story was inspirational. I loved her first plane ride scene when the camera pans to her fingers moving and griping the seat's armrests. Her mother Nakku Harriet’s (Lupita Nyong’o) surprised happiness at seeing her new home for the first time, embraced the amazing joy residing in this film. Besides the lack of clear time references with the main character, the film was too long. There were three times, I came out of being engaged in the story to wondering why it was taking so long to tell the story. It needed to be more crisp.
Nawanga was wonderful as Phiona. Although I wish they would have used a second person for the younger years, Nawanga was perfect for the later character. Oyelowo was amazing as the patient minister and chess teacher. I loved the stories he told his kids to help them with the pressures of being in chess tournaments. Nyong’o was sublime as Phiona’s mother. Her strength and intelligence shined through as she fought to keep her children fed, with a roof over their heads and safe. William Wheeler wrote a script that tried to tell too much. It made the running time of 124 minutes laborious. Mira Nair did an OK job of directing the characters, however as previously noted, the film did a disservice by having Nawanga try to play through so much time, and to not cut aspects of the story to make the film crisper.
Overall: This is a wonderful story, but the execution, by the director and screenwriter, didn’t live up to the power of the story.