Queen of Katwe
Release Date: September 30th, 2016
Directed by: Mira Nair
Starring: David Oyelowo, Lupita Nyong'o, and Madina Nalwanga
Phiona Mutesi was living in Katwe, a slum of Kampala, Uganda, selling maize to help support her family. One day she followed her brother to a local outreach ministry where she found children being taught chess. Robert Katende, who leads the lessons, discovers that Phiona is actually an extraordinary player, and possibly a prodigy. Katende begins raising money to enter Phiona and some of the other students into local tournaments, where she not only gains medals, but also a new perspective on how chess could change her family's life for the better.
Queen of Katwe is based on the true story of Phiona Mutesi, who became a Woman Candidate Master in 2012 and has represented Uganda at several world chess tournaments. It takes its title from Tim Crothers' book The Queen of Katwe: A Story of Life, Chess, and One Extraordinary Girl's Dream of Becoming a Grandmaster, published by ESPN (ESPN Films also produced the movie alongside Disney). It's not a stretch to see why ESPN would back a film like this. It has all the makings of any other underdog sports story, with Phiona rising from poverty to become a champion in her own right. Chess is a game respected by most of the world, with prizes and prestige awarded to the best of the best. It is filmed very similarly to many sports films, with moments of victory and anguish in equal pair as Phiona plays and practices.
Queen of Katwe's central plot revolves around the rise and development of Phiona. One of the most compelling moments of the film is concerns how her fame begins to affect her. She goes from being a helpful and obedient daughter selling maize and helping support the family, to someone who is unsatisfied with her place in the world, having now tasted how the other half lives. Her mother describes her in this part of the film as between the world of Katwe and the higher class city world, not being accepted in either, drifting unsatisfied "like a ghost." While pride is a common flaw in many heroes, this was an interesting twist on that approach. Phiona is also not a very good loser: each win is a victory, but each loss is a significant hit to her ego. But the "queen" is a fighter, and we see her develop the common lesson of many sports films: to lose gracefully and never give up. But Queen of Katwe is just as much about Phiona as it is about her coach, Robert Katende, and his struggle supporting a team with zero funds and even less social acceptance. The world that these children live in is frightening, filled with exploitation, injury, and struggle, and most of the rest of the world wants nothing to do with them. Having come from that world, Katende knows exactly how to motivate these children. There's a particularly telling exchange early on where he frames chess as a chance to "beat city kids," which is all the motivation these children need. Finally, there's Phiona's mother Nakku, who works harder than anyone to ensure that her four children are taken care of. She, like Phiona, often fails (through no fault of her own), but she refuses to give up on her children. Her story is about maintaining dignity in the face of overwhelming obstacles, and there are several instances where her pride, just like her daughters, keeps her from making the "safe" choice.
The acting in this movie is superb. Lupita Nyong'o has already been praised thoroughly for her role as Phiona's mother, and it's well deserved. She acts with such strength and sincerity that it's hard not to focus entirely on her whenever she's on screen. David Oyelowo's Coach Katende is another great role for the actor, and he brings an animated passion that makes him appear as welcoming to the viewers as he does to the children. Meanwhile, newcomer Madina Nalwanga as Phiona does an excellent job for such a difficult role. Her character appears unflappable for most of the film, but when she's in the throes of victory or pits of defeat, she and her character really open up.
This movie is a soothing balm in a world where everything feels like its going to hell. Phiona's story is uplifting because we want to think that there are people like Coach Katende who are fighting the good fight and people like Phiona that people can look up to. It's about time we had something that lifted us up like Queen of Katwe. I highly recommend checking it out.