Inspired by a true story, Queen of Katwe is a wonderful, heartfelt film with an inspiring message and a charismatic cast. It is based on the story of Phiona Mutesi, a chess prodigy. Her struggles through life and her journey to becoming an inspirational chess champion are depicted in this film, with newcomer Madina Nalwanga portraying her.
In the late 2000s, Phiona was selling corn with her brother in the slums of Kampala, Uganda. Living in a small house with her family, Phiona only knew about life’s hardships. Meanwhile, Robert Katende, a missionary looking for work, coached soccer and taught local kids how to play chess in his free time. When Phiona saw her brother sneak away from selling corn one day, she followed him and found Robert and the kids playing chess. Curious to learn about the game, she became fascinated and wanted to learn more. Unfortunately, her mother did not like her daughter and son playing the game, believing they should work and make money to support the family.
David Oyelowo portrays Robert Katende as a kind hearted, sympathetic man trying to do God’s work. His compassion and commitment to helping Phiona and the other children play chess is admirable. Despite his own struggles growing up and the roadblocks in the way of his goals for the children to play in chess championships, he continued to work towards his goals with the hope that he was doing the right thing.
Lupita Nyong’o portrays Harriet Mutesi, Phiona’s mother, as a loving but conflicted parent struggling to take care of her children in a poor environment. As a single parent with four children, she struggled to provide for her family. Lupita is excellent in the role, displaying determination, love, anger and grief throughout the film. She clearly is a mother who wants what’s best for her child and resists letting her children do what they want out of love, not spite.
One of the most notable aspects of the film was the predominantly black cast. Throughout Queen of Katwe, the audience is treated to a film without a white character intent on “saving” the characters from their depressing state. Instead, the characters must overcome their own hardships and rely on one another to escape the poverty and adversity they face.
Queen of Katwe also features an exciting array of music, thanks to the film’s composer, Alex Heffes, and a lineup of songs including “#1 Spice” by Young Cardamom and HAB, as well as Alicia Keys’ “Back to Life.” I strongly recommend listening to the soundtrack from Walt Disney Records. The songs are an exceptional and a compelling representation of African culture that I found very relatable. “#1 Spice” was a particularly memorable song with a fun beat and African flair.
This film has many interesting aspects to it, despite a few flaws. When the film was shot in Katwe, many of the people in the background were not actors but just ordinary people who didn’t know a movie was even being filmed! It’s based on a book by Tim Crothers chronicling Phiona’s journey and it was even mentioned in the film. Though it starts slowly and feels a little long, those are minimal issues for the movie.
Queen of Katwe is warm, sweet and inspiring in a way that feels genuine, not shoehorned in to make the story seem more relatable. Director Mira Nair and writer William Wheeler should be commended for bringing this story to life on screen. The credits were also uniquely done in a way I’ve never seen before in a film based on a true story.
I am more than glad that Walt Disney Studios and ESPN Films had the boldness to release this with a wide release in theatres. This film deserves to be seen.
– Gervaise Branch-Allen
Image via IndieWire