QUEEN OF KATWE Review
Director: Mira Nair
Genre: Sports Drama
QUEEN OF KATWE is an absolutely crystalline, perfect, sterling specimen of everything a Disney movie should be. Amongst its many merits, the heartwarming film has a message that speaks to both children and parents, widens the view of what a lead actress can look like, and shows Uganda without exoticising or stereotyping. Director Mira Nair lives in Uganda part-time where she also runs a film school. QUEEN OF KATWE is very fortunate to have had her at the helm of this picture, painting Uganda, and specifically Katwe, in a colorful and thorough light.
The film tells the story of Phiona (played by Madina Nalwanga in her first ever role), a young girl with a single mother and three siblings, whose family is too poor to even send her to school. Instead, she and her siblings must help to support the family by selling maize on the street. When Phiona discovers chess, her world changes rapidly as she begins to show the makings of a chess master. The plot follows Phiona and her journey into the chess elite, but the true heart of the story is the courage and determination of Phiona and that of her mother, Harriet (played by Lupita Nyong’o).
A chess movie set in a beautiful milieu that isn’t for boring nerds? Blasphemy
The first day that Phiona finds the chess “school,” she is mercilessly teased that she smells like the gutter. She says nothing but stays for the day anyway, even though the other children continue to tease her. The next day she makes sure to wash before going back, unphased by the teasing she received on her first day. In much the same way, Phiona determinedly plays her way up the ranks of chess tournaments, beating players far older and far more experienced. She only stumbles when she reaches the Chess Olympiad in Russia where she loses before she can attain the title of “master.” She becomes disenchanted, but with the encouragement of her mentor, Mr. Katende (David Oyelowo), and her mother she becomes even more determined to become a master.
After Phiona’s father died, Harriet was left with four mouths to feed as well as her own. But she refuses to give up, even when they are evicted from their tiny shack. Instead, Harriet finds ways to make just enough money to survive. The film celebrates the power and courage of women in the recognition of Phiona and Harriet. As Phiona receives her first chess trophy, the announcer describes Phiona’s aggressive and commanding playing style as wonderful traits to find in a girl. Later, Mr. Katende reminds Phiona of the amazing strength her mother has shown in keeping the family together and alive despite the many hardships the family faces.
One queen to rule them all, one queen to bind them…
As Oyelowo pointed out in the Q&A following the screening I attended, which was broadcast to AMC theaters across the country, QUEEN OF KATWE is unique in its focus on the women of this story. Despite the fact that the story is about Phiona’s journey in chess, Oyelowo argues that had this film been directed by a man, rest assured his character, Mr. Katende, Phiona’s coach, would have been the main character of the film, as he is the only male in the story. Oyelowo’s reasoning is sound. As Nair stated in the Q&A, everybody wants to see themselves in the characters they put onto the screen. We’ve seen so many movies oriented to the coach — the frequently male coach — and not those they are coaching.
The film beautifully encourages all to never give up and to never let oneself be beaten down by obstacles. As Oyelowo’s character tells Phiona, “Don’t be so quick to tip your king,” meaning don’t be quick to admit defeat. With Phiona’s mother living this motto and Mr. Katende espousing it, Phiona and the audience are emboldened to strike out into chess and into life with confidence and determination. The character of Phiona’s mother is a testament to the strength of mothers everywhere who give everything to protect their children and especially single mothers who must do so alone.
The piece in the center doubles as one of the world’s most haunted objects
QUEEN OF KATWE’s story is truly universal and all can support Phiona as she follows her seemingly impossible dreams. When watching the film, the tide of emotion was so high that a great cheer went through the audience every time Phiona won a chess victory, something I have never witnessed before. But the true standout was the talented cast, which was an interesting mix of veterans (Oyelowo, Nyong’o) and first-timers (Nalwanga [playing Phiona], Kabanza [playing Phiona’s brother], and many of the other Katwe kids). All involved brought energy and gravity to their roles, performing so flawlessly that it was impossible to tell who was experienced and who was not. The energy radiating from the screen was so pure and earnest that it was impossible to avoid getting swept up in their hopes and dreams.
I would urge everyone, of all ages and all genders, to see this film. It is an important film. It is important that these events happened. It is important that the film was even made. It is important because it celebrates the strong people in our lives. Sure, support this QUEEN OF KATWE because it is directed by a woman, support this film because it is directed by a person of color. Support it for its setting on the continent of Africa and its cast comprised of people of color. But most of all, support this film because it is a beautiful and unique story that deserves to be shared… Oh, and did I mention it has a killer soundtrack, too?