Queen of Katwe

Queen of Katwe

(2016)

One girl's triumphant path to becoming a chess champion.

Newcomer Madina Nalwanga leads this true-story chess drama, co-starring Oscar winner Lupita Nyong’o (12 Years a Slave) and Golden Globe nominee David Oyelowo (Selma). Directed by the great Mira Nair (Monsoon Wedding).... More

For 10-year-old Phiona Mutesi (Nalwanga) and her family, life in the impoverished slum of Katwe in Kampala, Uganda, is a constant struggle. Her mother, Harriet (Nyong’o), is fiercely determined to take care of her family and works tirelessly selling vegetables in the market to make sure her children are fed and have a roof over their heads. When Phiona meets Robert Katende (Oyelowo), a soccer player turned missionary who teaches local children chess, she is captivated. Chess requires a good deal of concentration, strategic thinking and risk taking, all skills which are applicable in everyday life, and Katende hopes to empower youth with the game.

Phiona is impressed by the intelligence and wit the game requires and immediately shows potential. Recognizing Phiona’s natural aptitude for chess and the fighting spirit she’s inherited from her mother, Katende begins to mentor her, but Harriet is reluctant to provide any encouragement, not wanting to see her daughter disappointed. As Phiona begins to succeed in local chess competitions, Katende teaches her to read and write in order to pursue schooling. She quickly advances through the ranks in tournaments, but breaks away from her family to focus on her own life. Her mother eventually realizes that Phiona has a chance to excel and teams up with Katende to help her fulfill her extraordinary potential, escape a life of poverty and save her family.Hide

The Peoples' Reviews

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Walt Disney’s Queen of Katwe (2016) follows a familiar story formula and at the same time is a totally original cinema experience. How can these opposites co-exist? It is another ‘inspiring teacher’ story with a fairy tale theme of a lowly maiden who finds fame, but instead of a prince, she finds a missionary devoted to helping impoverished Ugandan children. Vivid cinematography takes you right into the villages and ghettos and walks you through dirt streets and shacks that have no... More windows or doors. It is this hyper-realistic photography with a mainly amateur cast that takes this film to the next level.

Ten-year old Phiona (Madina Nalwanga) sells corn on the streets of Katwe in Uganda to help her destitute single mother provide food and shelter for the family. Generations of girls like her face a daily struggle to survive and she has no future except in dreams of escape. Brought together by fate, she meets Robert (David Oyelowo) a missionary who coaches soccer and chess to get aimless kids off the street. She has never seen a chess board before but her curiosity draws her to learn the game despite the taunts from boys who shame her for her smelly ghetto clothes. Excelling quickly, she becomes a top player in the local club and her new confidence gives her identity and purpose.

The film follows the predictable narrative arc of poor kids rising to take on the country’s best. With Robert’s mentoring and financial help, Phiona leads a team to compete at the national chess championships, a personal journey troubled by tensions with her mother. The story is kept sanitised for general Disney audiences by avoiding the kind of high-stake risks facing the teacher of the same storyline in The Fencer (2016). As a Disney production, you might expect to see every cliché that can possibly be squeezed out of this genre. Instead the story is light on melodrama, mainly because of the natural authenticity of Phiona and the other cast. Career actors could not have pulled this off so well.

The metaphor of pawns over-powering queens and the importance of practice, planning, and confidence are a little obvious. The move-by-move close-up shots of chess competition will no doubt delight chess players but may be found tiresomely repetitive by others. But these are minor quibbles given what this film achieves: an original story told honestly on an exotic location without the usual Hollywood baggage. It is quietly inspiring and a minor triumph for Disney.Hide


The Press Reviews

  • It's a heartfelt movie, which makes up in warmth what it lacks in narrative originality. Full Review

  • Its plot isn't going to win any prizes for originality, but Nair tells the story with immense warmth and cheer. You can see just about every move coming, but it's making all the right ones. Full Review

  • Sometimes, it's enough to walk out of a film with your heart warmed - even if your brain's still craving a little something more. Full Review

  • If there is anyone out there capable of remaining unmoved by this true-life triumph-of-the-underdog sports story, I don't think I want to meet that person. Full Review

  • Hits every note of plucky positivity so squarely on the head that it leaves little room for audience involvement. Full Review

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