Copyright 2014. 83 Films. All rights reserved.
MOVIE REVIEW: QUEEEN OF KATWE
By Kimberly Grant
In the Disney film, Queen of Katwe, an 11 year old Ugandan girl, Phiona Mutesi (played by Madina Nalwanga),
becomes an international chess champion. This very real, very recent story (written by William Wheeler and
based on an ESPN Magazine article by Tim Crothers) would seem traditional until you factor in all of the
obstacles Phiona has to go through just to survive, let alone become a chess champion.
Her mother, Nakkku Harriet (Lupita Nyong’o), sells salt and corn in the Kampala market near Lake Victoria just
to feed, clothe, and shelter her four children. They sleep on the floor in whatever run-down shack Harriet can
scrape together enough money to live in. Phiona, not only has to sell corn in the market with her brother,
Mugabi Brian (Martin Kabanza), but has to lug gallons clean water for miles so that they can bathe, drink,
and cook each day.
“It took a village to harness the potential Phiona has,” said the film’s director Mira Nair during a Q & A after a screening of the film. The Katwe community comes together to support an 11 year old who has a talent that takes her all throughout Africa and Russia.
But, it is her coach at the Sports Outreach Ministry, Robert Katende (David Oyelowo), who starts it all by bringing a board game called chess to the children of Phiona’s community whose parents can’t afford for them to go to school. These lovable children form a chess team called the Pioneers. And, Phiona is the best of them all, which allows her to explore her potential and form a dream to better the life of herself and her family.
In September 2015, South Florida Times spoke to Oyelowo about the film and he said: “It’s a film about making the best of who you are and breaking out from the confines of your environment. And, I just love the fact that there is a story like that with Africans, by Africans that is being made by Disney. It’s a first to my knowledge and I’m very excited about it.”
He wasn’t exaggerating. The film, shot in various parts of Uganda with mostly Ugandan and South African crew and cast, is a beautiful ode to Africa and what it means to be young and talented. The general theme of the film and the making there of is not letting your current situation hinder you from trying to achieve a better situation.
This is an incredible story about children like Phiona who live hard lives, but have so much potential. They just need someone who can believe in them and fight for them when they’re too young to know how to fight for themselves. It’s a moving, inspiring story and it’s the kind of film that stays with you; making you rethink your life and how you live it. We have so much opportunity, what do we take for granted?
The story isn’t the only awesome thing about this movie, though. Nalwanga is clearly a star on the rise. She came into this project as a total unknown and injected her own life struggles selling corn in the market to breathe life into this true character. She also brings a lot of joy and hope and swagger that she basically reminds you of a young Lupita.
Speaking of Ms. Nyong’o. If you thought her portrayal of Patsy in Twelve Years a Slave was good, you should see her as Harriet. Talk about Oscar-bait. Nyong’o had the opportunity to sit with the real Harriet to inform her of the character and she obviously took good notes. In Nyong’o’s Yale-trained hands, she transforms herself into a woman who, in her own words, “is very grounded, very enigmatic, and will sacrifice everything for her children except her principles.”
Even Oyelowo took note of her outstanding performance, saying: “One of my favorite things from set was watching Lupita practice her walk in the layers of African clothing, because it was a testament to her commitment to the role. She’s an Oscar winner and fashion icon, who can pass as a corn seller.”
Being the only male principal actor in a film made for women, by women, Oyelowo understands the importance that female empowerment plays in this must-see film. He also understands that had it been a male director, this film would have been about Coach Robert and taken the much-needed focus away from Phiona and her inspiring story.
Another component that’s must see is the film’s end credits where the audience gets to see the real inspirations for the characters and the actors who play them. Despite it seeming to be just a way to end a film, it’s actually moving; which was the director’s intent.
“The power of truth is infinitely more powerful,” Nair said about the credits that she dedicated to the youth. “I wanted to show that this is actually happening now. This great thing can happen to you.” We whole-heartedly agree, Mira.