Queen of Katwe tells the inspiring true story of chess-prodigy Phiona Mutesi’s rise from poverty in Katwe, Uganda, to become one of the greatest chess masters in the world.
The film begins with 10-year-old Phiona (newcomer Madina Nalwanga) going about her daily life by selling corn in the “slums” of Uganda. Her father tragically died, so her mother (Lupita Nyong’o) is left to raise four children alone. The Mutesi’s don’t have an easy time — the oldest child runs off with a “bad guy,” they’re evicted from their home and a storm floods their new house.
Through Robert Katende (David Oyelowo) — the soccer player turned missionary — Phiona discovers the game of chess. While chess becomes a great resource on which Phiona can focus her energy and high intelligence, it does not solve all her problems; the film does an excellent job of showing that an escape from poverty is not an easy transition.
Queen of Katwe was shot on location in Uganda, providing an honest look at Mutesi’s childhood home, and all the colors in the film are especially vivid and beautiful. The majority of the film’s actors are Kenyan, providing a realistic and true depiction of the people who inspired the film. This is a step in the right direction for accurate actor representation, especially after the poor casting choice of Scarlett Johansson to play the Japanese-lead in “Ghost in the Shell.”
Be sure to stick around for the credits to see them interact with their environment; viewers will get to see the actors stand beside their real-life counterparts at the film’s conclusion.
Nyong’o delivers the best performance, portraying an incredibly complex character with skill and emotion. Phiona’s mother is strong, yet she needs her older children’s help so that they can pay their rent and have food at night; therefore, she struggles with Phiona’s running off to play chess. The film depicts an honest relationship between a mother and her coming-of-age daughter.
Oyelowo also delivers an admirable performance as Katende. If real Katende is anything like how he was portrayed, he’s an honest and true hero, devoting his life to others and putting their needs before his own.
While the story seems a bit “Disneyfied,” the underdog’s true story is inspiring. While it does seem to drag on a bit at the end, and the chronology of the events is slightly confusing, it tells an emotional and moving story nonetheless, not sugarcoating the fact that her rise — and transition — to success was not easy.
It’s definitely a worthwhile film to see, for the inspirational impact alone.
Who knows, maybe young girls will even begin to pick up the game of chess like they did Katniss Everdeen’s bow and arrow.
Next week, we’ll take a look at another “chess” film — the 1993 critically-acclaimed Searching for Bobby Fischer. The film was inspired by the real-life chess prodigy Josh Waitzkin and explores the fine line between sportsmanship and a drive-to-win no-matter-the-cost philosophy through the story of a young boy whose family discovers has a special talent for the game. This film stars a young Max Pomeranc as Josh and is directed by Steven Zaillian.
Photo courtesy of Walt Disney Pictures