Queen of Katwe is a movie about chess as much as Chariots of Fire was a movie about running. Although Queen of Katwe revolves around the game, it is more a movie about hope, triumph, tragedy, failure, and success.
The story is about a young girl named Phiona Mutesi (played by newcomer Madina Nalwanga) who comes from a deeply impoverished neighborhood in Kampala, Uganda called Katwe. Phiona has no formal education, can’t read, and seems doomed to sell corn for a living for the rest of her life. There is very little opportunity for her to even find out her talents and abilities because of how impoverished she and her family are. Her mother, Harriet (played by Lupita Nyong’o) struggles with keeping the family together. Although she is hard working, loving, responsible, and dedicated, she can barely feed and maintain a roof over their heads after her husband dies. But when Robert Katende (played by David Oyelowo) decides to teach some of the local children how to play chess, Phiona’s life begins to change for the better. She is captivated by the game and soon becomes quite skilled at it. At first, her mother is concerned that Katende is offering cheap hope to these poor children, but he slowly gains her trust. And it’s through the game of chess that an opportunity for Phiona to blossom springs forth. But along the way, she has to battle class prejudice, sexism, and the circumstances of life which all seek to hold her back from becoming all she could be.
Watching it you can’t help but feel inspired by what you see on the screen and at the same time feel incredibly self-aware of the things we take for granted everyday. Clothes, food, a place to sleep are all luxuries in the impoverished area where the film takes place. Even the motivation to play chess comes from a place of poverty. Katende who is coaching the local kids soccer team while waiting for an opening as an engineer, asks some of the local children why they don’t play and one of the children answers honestly that their parents literally can’t afford for them to get hurt. Paying for the luxury of a hospital is beyond their means.
Coming out of the film felt like I had been on a journey with these characters. It is inspirational, motivational, and thought-provoking and honestly one of the most well-crafted movies I’ve seen in a long time. Director Mira Nair is close to the film – literally. She has owned a home in Kampala, Uganda for the past 27 years where the majority of the movie takes place and lived only a few minutes away from the actual Phiona Mutesi without ever knowing her or hearing her story. But it is Nair’s familiarity with the area, it’s people, and her passion for the subject that elevates this movie beyond a typical “based on a true story” offering.
It is also due to the tremendous acting ability of its principal actors. David Oyelowo does a tremendous job portraying Robert Katende. Nair comments, “Robert is not a saint. But he is completely morally-centered and unbelievably generous. There is no sense of any contrivance in how he thinks and he always thinks beyond himself, and David completely alchemized that. David made the part his own with real humor and a deep emotionality that’s extremely moving, shifting it away from some kind of do-gooder or missionary into something much more complex.”
Academy Award winning actress Lupita Nyong’o brings a heartfelt and touching performance as Phiona’s mother, Harriet. When reading the script, Nyong’o cried. “It was the first time in a while that I had been so enlivened, inspired and challenged by a role I was considering,” she said. “I immediately sent an email to my representatives saying, ‘I must do this film.'” Oyelowo said about his co-star, “Lupita lives each scene moment by moment. There are few actors who I can say that, when you’re in a scene with them you bring everything you have because otherwise you’ll be left behind, and she is one of those.”
But perhaps the most delightful surprise came from newcomer Madina Nalwanga who played the central role of Phiona Mutesi. Not only does she have to come across as believable alongside such powerhouse actors as Oyelowo and Nyong’o, but there are large segments of the film where she has to portray complex and deep feelings often difficult for someone of her age. But perhaps it was how closely she related to the role of Phiona that helped. Madina also sold corn on the streets of the city until she was taken in by the owner of a local dance academy who offered her a new lease on life. “Phiona’s story is like my story. Her background is like my background, but for her it was chess that changed everything and for me it was dancing and singing.”
Bring tissue if you’re prone to cry at movies because this one will yank at your heartstrings. But make sure you go and see this movie. It will take you on a roller coaster of emotions and at the end, you’ll be glad you came along for the ride.
- Queen of Katwe opens in theaters September 23rd in limited release and September 30th nationwide.