The opening sequence of The Dark Horse depicts Genesis Potini wandering through the rain muttering to himself, intercut with his older brother teaching him the game of chess when they were both children. He stops in a store with a few chessboards set up, and continues his frantic word salad as the shop owners look on nervously. Then, Genesis starts moving the pieces with a preternatural celerity, waxing poetic chess theory, comparing the relative qualities of the Sicilian defense and the Scotch game. The preamble continues until Genesis is discovered by his handler and whisked back to the mental hospital. The title flashes across the screen, and we understand the fundamental themes of The Dark Horse immediately: dealing with mental health, the importance of family and community, and the transformative power of the game of Chess.
The name “Bobby Fischer” is synonymous with high-level chess, even decades after the Brooklyn-born grandmaster won his World Chess Championship match against the reigning champion from the Soviet Union, Boris Spasskey. Staged during the height of the Cold War, the match was seen by both sides as an opportunity to prove intellectual superiority. Pawn Sacrifice dramatizes this iconic battle-of-wits, but also delves into the psychological effects of obsession, dedication, and the heavy burden of worldwide expectation– even on the strongest of minds.
Disney’s Queen of Katwe appears to follow the standard formula of sports movie: take an underdog (bonus points for a disadvantaged upbringing) and chart their rise to the top ranks until they overcome some snooty favorite. Mira Nair’s film distinguishes itself through peerless acting, a vibrant but patient setting, and consistent application of its chosen sport as thematic metaphor. The film focuses on a young, poor female chess prodigy from Uganda named Phiona Mutesi (Madina Nalwanga). Throughout the story, chess is used as a mechanism for improvement and a way to escape her situation. Ultimately, Queen of Katwe champions the intellect of individuals, and shows us a world where young girls and boys can apply that intellect to improve their lives.