Queen of Katwe, rated PG
This delightful film from Disney is directed by Mira Nair. She decided to make this feature film after making a documentary about the life of Robert Katende, the coach who trained the subject of this film. The screenplay is written by William Wheeler and is based on Tim Crothers’ book The Queen of Katwe: A Story of Life, Chess, and One Extraordinary Girl’s Dream of Becoming a Grandmaster. The film tells the remarkable real-life story of Phiona Mutesi.
The film begins in 2007. Phiona, played by the impressive newcomer Madina Nalwanga, lives in the slums of Katwe in Kampala, Uganda with her mother Nakku Harriet, who is played by Oscar winner (Best Actress for 12 Years a Slave) Lupita Nyong’o, brothers Mugabi Brian (Martin Kabanza) and Richard (Ivan Jacobo), and sister Night (Taryn Kyaze). Phiona’s father is gone, and Nakku is struggling to make ends meet. Phiona and her brother sell ears of corn (maize) that Nakku has purchased earlier to passing cars on Katwe’s crowded streets each day. Some days they all eat and some days they don’t. Phiona doesn’t go to school because her mother can’t afford the tuition. We see Phiona’s older sister Night seek to escape the extreme poverty of her family by entering into prostitution, to the sadness of her mother.
One day, Phiona and her brother providentially come across the Pioneers Chess Club, a part of the Sports Outreach Program, run by the Agape Sanctuary Ministry. The club is led by soccer-playing Robert Katende, called “Coach”, played by David Oyelowo, a fine actor who delivered a strong performance as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in Selma. Phiona develops a passion and has a natural talent for chess. Soon, she is competing and beating the club’s best players.
Nyong’o, as a single mother, is suspicious of the chess club. Her concerns grow as Phiona begins to travel to chess tournaments. During this time, we see Coach becoming a father figure to Phiona.
The film shows us a grim picture of the streets of Uganda in all their poverty, thanks to cinematographer Sean Bobbitt (12 Years a Slave). The film includes some excellent music and costumes. We also see some wonderful shots of the children reacting to a world they had never seen before (flying, swimming in a pool, enjoying ketchup and seeing snow). I missed out on the many scenes depicting Phiona’s chess matches because I don’t know anything about the game of chess. It would have added a rich layer to this wonderful film.
The film shows the importance of family, and how Nakku as a single mother will not compromise, even in the most trying circumstances. The film is about finding hope in these circumstances. Several times, moves in chess are used for metaphors in life. I appreciated the positive manner in which this film portrays Christianity.
This was a highly enjoyable film, led by the strong acting performances of Nyong’o, Oyelowo and Nalwanga. Highly recommended.