Many are not familiar with director Mira Nair, but she's been around for a while with one her earliest feature films being 1991's critically acclaimed "Mississippi Masala" starring Denzel Washington and newcomer Sarita Choudhury. If that title doesn't jog your memory, it is because it was a limited release film and was overwhelmed by Denzel's other film that year "Ricochet" which went on to make $21 million.


Mira's next quality film was 2006's "The Namesake" with Kal Penn ("Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle") which earned even more critical acclaim. The one film of hers that might ring a bell is 2009's "Amelia" with Hillary Swank and Richard Gere; it didn't receive as much acclaim but did earn a reasonable amount of revenue to afford Nair the chance to helm "The Reluctant Fundamentalist" in 2012. With the exception of "Amelia", Nair's films tend to surround ethnic people [mostly women] in transition from one lifestyle to another.


This time Nair taps Oscar winner Lupita Nyong'o and Oscar nominee David Oyelowo, traveling to Uganda to retell the story of a chess prodigy. A young Ugandan girl named Phiona Mutesi - portrayed wonderfully by newcomer Madina Nalwanga and adapted from Tim Crothers' ESPN magazine article.

Unlike the 1993 film "Searching for Bobby Fischer", where Josh Waitzkin was nurtured in New York privilege, Phiona's story evolves from the slums of Uganda in the village of Katwe, a village so poor, other poor towns made fun of it. Phiona, whose mother Nakku (Nyong'o) earns a less than meager living selling maize (corn) to feed her three children, has resigned her life to poverty.


The eldest daughter, Night (Taryn Kyaze) tires of the lifestyle and turns to prostitution while the youngest, Mugabi (Martin Kabanza) helps with the hustle until he is injured. Phiona, uneducated and nearing her prime age for suitors, happens upon a chess club called the Pioneers mentored by Robert Katende (Oyelowo). He invites her in, and after she is teased about her body odor, she begins to learn the game from Katende and the other children.


In no time, it is realized that she has natural capabilities when she soon begins defeating all the children in the club. Katende embraces the concept and pushes her to move towards Master's status. But this is more than a story of a child prodigy, this is the story of a widowed uneducated mother completely up against it with everyone against her: the landlord, the local pimp, her wholesaler, etc.

Lupita, once again digs down into her craft to create believable poverty and uncertainty. Her portrayal of Phiona's mother, though with less screen presence than Oyelowo and Mutesi, completely defines the struggles for the village of Katwe, but also the poor class of Uganda.


Even the simplest scenes of her sacrificing a dress that once meant the world to her, is enough to leave every mother - every parent - with a lump in their throat. Lupita once again demonstrates why she captured an Oscar on her first outing in "12 Years a Slave".


Unlike Will Smith faulty African accent in "Concussion", we get performances from Oyelowo and Nyongo that never stray from an African accent. You will believe they are Ugandan though Oyelowo is of British legacy and Nyong'o [technically] Mexican but educated at Yale. This is what acting is all about.


But that is not to take anything from the lead, Nalwanga who seemingly slides right into the role for her first effort. She is aided by an ensemble of children skillfully guided by Nair to be children - with all their flaws. When one of the girls, Gloria (Nikita Waligwa) loses her queen during a major tournament, her response is classic and yet so typical of a child.


The film is very much Disneyesque, even with its unseen tragedy, the death of Phiona's father and the reason they are so poor. And, it never strays from from the Princess/queen concept though trudging through the muddy streets of Katwe.


"The Queen of Katwe" presents a heartwarming fact-based story with strong performances by Lupita Nyong'o and David Oyelowo that might turn some head during awards time.   -- GEOFF BURTON