Archie Williams, a contestant on “America’s Got Talent”, shared a powerful testimony during his last performance about the power of prayer. Williams was arrested and incarcerated for 37 years for a crime that he didn’t commit. Despite a lack of evidence, he was found guilty of rape. He was sentenced to life in prison at […]
Directed by Mira Nair, Queen of Katwe tells the true story of Phiona Mutesi, the Ugandan teenage prodigy who went on to become one of the first titled female chess players in Ugandan history.
Much like the game it is centered around, the film strictly adheres to a familiar structure—that of a sports drama, with the predictable cycle of practice, failure, redoubled effort, and finally, success and glorious triumph.
The things that set Queen of Katwe apart, however, are its sense of place, an expertly crafted clash of the traditional and the cosmopolitan, and, most importantly, the quiet uplifting of a black, female protagonist.
To watch Queen of Katwe is to be immersed in the colors, sounds, and textures of Katwe, an area in the city of Kampala, the capital of Uganda. It is here that viewers find Phiona’s family, living out their lives in their poor corner of the capital, and it is from this most unlikeliest of places that a chess champion, able to see “8 moves ahead,” emerges.
Katwe feels absolutely alive, and for good reason. The film was shot in the slums of the actual Katwe in Uganda, the streets populated with actual locals. Because of this, Queen of Katwe has an incredible feel of authenticity, portraying Uganda not as a place deserving of Western pity, but a place where a different kind of life takes place—a harder kind of life, yes, but a valid life, nonetheless. The people here work; they play, laugh, dance, and cry, just like anyone else.
Nair also does an excellent job of depicting the conflict between the traditional values of Phiona’s mother, Harriet, and the more Western values of the outside world that begin to influence Phiona through the course of the film. Unlike many other directorial works, the movie depicts neither culture as inherently superior to the other, and will challenge viewers’ preconceived notions, such as is seen in the subplot that deals with Kay, Phiona’s older sister, whose obsession with a glamorous “city” lifestyle leads her to trouble when she abandons her mother’s traditional wisdom.
Queen of Katwe is a Disney film, and does what Disney is best at—uplifting the underdog. Black women are one of the most underrepresented groups in terms of film protagonists, so it’s refreshing to see the treatment Phiona receives here. In one of the most smile-inducing quotes of the movie, someone observes, as they watch Phiona play chess, that “such aggressiveness in a girl is a treasure”. It is this wonderful line that separates Queen of Katwe from many of Disney’s other offerings. The celebration of female power is rare, even today, and the story of Phiona, who rose not only from poverty, but from the preconceived notions surrounding her ethnicity and gender, is truly inspiring.
Just as importantly, the film doesn’t shy away from depicting her pain and mistakes. Fiction seems to often take female characters to one extreme or the other—either overly hard or soft. Queen of Katwe reveals not a mere set of fictional characteristics, but the complex humanity in each of its characters.
The acting of the film is solidly done, with Lupita Nyong’o and David Oyelowo standing out in particular. They add to the authenticity of the film, their acting natural and understated, allowing the rest of the child stars to shine through. The role of Phiona is well-played by Madina Nalwanga, whose look of studied concentration and quiet inner reflection create a character we truly believe is a champion chess player.
If you—and your children—want to see a film that depicts a part of the world few of us will ever get to see in such authenticity, and if you want to be inspired by the true story of a girl who rose from the slums of Uganda to become the champion of a game most commonly associated with white, wealthy players, this movie is for you. The individual elements of the film elevate it beyond some of its more glaring clichés, and it is well worth a viewing.