Queen Of Katwe tells the biographical story of Phiona Mutesi (Madina Nalwanga), an intelligent, courageous young girl from a poor shantytown in Katwe, situated in Kampala, the capital of Uganda. This is the “feel-good” story of a youngster who’d go on to become national chess champion. This movie feels familiar, yet unique. It’s not everyday that we see a movie about chess being made for cinema release. I’ve been playing chess since I was six years old and I will continue to push the notion that chess is a SPORT, an unpopular opinion that is a grand talking point in debates.
Nalwanga as Mutesi is poised, observant and impassive. It’s her debut performance and it’s truly something special to watch. David Oyelowo (A United Kingdom) plays her coach Robert Katende. I’m a big fan of Mr Oyelowo having been trailing him since I first saw him in TV movie Small Island, adapted from the Andrea Levy novel. Lupita Nyong’o (12 Years A Slave) plays her fiercely protective and passionate mother Nakku Harriet. Both deliver solid performances, despite not being in roles that use this actors to their maximum potential unlike Oyelowo being Seretse Khama (United Kingdom) and Martin Luther King (Selma) while N’yongo playing Patsy in 12 Years A Slave and delivering a stellar voice performance as Raksha in Jon Favreau’s Jungle Book.
This is an American film about Africa that surprisingly doesn’t fall into the trap of feeling too much like poverty tourism, as films like this often do. Sports flicks have a knack of telling “feel-good” stories as they follow the known methodology of “rags to riches” formula. It’s all about the underdog who comes out on top (Eddie The Eagle, Invictus, Fire In Babylon). Directed by Mira Nair, we follow Phiona Mutesi, a Ugandan girl who learns to play chess and subsequently becomes a prodigal child, becoming good enough to compete in national and international tournaments.
When Mutesi attacks other kids after they mock her for smelling of body odour, Coach Katende (Oyelowo) watches in interest and simply says, “this is a place for fighters.” He condones her animated response. He’s a practical instructor whose chess lessons come hand-in-hand with lessons about life, about planning and learning mental discipline. He knows his students and their families. He knows their struggles and understands they’re a little rough around the edges. He doesn’t try to mould them into “ideal” children. In fact, he ushers them to use their imperfections when they play, like when they go to Kings College.
Much alike how Ron Howard’s Robert Langdon films don’t delve into the mythology and history from the books, Queen Of Katwe doesn’t delve into chess specifics and strategies. For a mass audience, that would become boring too quickly. We are not subjected to castling, en passant or The King’s Gambit to name a few. But we are witness to a good story about a girl who achieved something great. “In chess, the small one can become the big the one” is a quote in reference to queening. If a pawn reaches the end of the board, you can get another queen. It’s upgrading a pawn from something small to something great that can do more. It’s pawn promotion and the concept of queening can be mirrored off her own life. The better she gets at chess, the better her own life seem to get.
Queen Of Katwe isn’t bothered about giving us an easy to digest biography drama. It begins in 2007 with Phiona, her siblings and her widowed mother (Nyong’o) in a hut they can just about afford with the money they make from flogging maize in the local market. Katwe’s community is desolately poor but the direction from Nair shows that we can find beauty in the ugliest of things. Regardless of squalor and poverty, Katwe’s people are what make the community. The film doesn’t romanticize poverty, as we see certain characters are pushed to prostitution to make ends meet. But other characters say things like “how is your life, Phiona?” to which she smiles, “it is fine.” In the East and in Africa, people talk to each other. In The West, if I asked a stranger that question, they’d look at me as if I was crazy. Why are you even talking to me?
Queen Of Katwe is very much a Disney movie, riddled with happy moments and child-friendly comedy. It shows Africa’s vibrant colours but also it’s darkness, from the horrors of mother nature to the lives some are pushed to survive. We need films like this. Chess isn’t really talked about, and I for one would love to see more young people playing it. With great performances and a wonderful musical score/soundtrack, Queen Katwe is certainly one to watch for the masses.