Walt Disney Pictures/ESPN Films/Mirabai Films
Directed by Mira Nair
Produced by John Carls/Lydia Dean Pilcher
Screenplay by William Wheeler
Based on “The Queen of Katwe: A Story of Life, Chess and One Extraordinary Girl’s Dream of Becoming a Grandmaster” by Tim Crothers
If you’ve been reading my reviews on a regular basis you’ll doubtless have noticed that there are words I use sparingly. That’s because I believe in the power of words and I believe that for them to have the proper impact and for people to sit up and pay attention to them, you have to use them when the situation calls for its use. To use words willy-nilly to describe everything robs them of their power. For instance, the birth of a baby is ‘amazing.’ A ham sandwich is not.
So when I use words like ‘superlative’ ‘uplifting’ and ‘inspirational’ to describe QUEEN OF KATWE you can be sure I don’t use those words lightly. Just go back and look at the reviews I’ve written for movies I’ve seen this year and see if you can find any of those words. I defy you. And that’s because no other movie I’ve seen this year deserves to be described as such. QUEEN OF KATWE was one of the best movies of 2016 and that people didn’t talk about it more still staggers me. Especially since people these days are always screaming at the top of their lungs about the lack of diversity in movies. Here’s a movie with rich, vibrant characters in a setting we rarely see in movies depicted with such depth and detail with a story so improbable that it has to be true and the movie goes virtually unnoticed.
I have to admit I was somewhat confused upon seeing ESPN Films listed in the opening credits as one of the production companies but as the movie went on, I understand why they were involved. QUEEN OF KATWE is a sports story, one that we’ve all seen before. You’ve got your underdog who triumphs against all odds to become a champion. But it’s the protagonist, her environment and her sport of choice that makes this particular sports story unique.
10 year old Phiona Mutesi lives in the slum township of Katwe, outside of Kampala, Uganda. Her widowed mother Harriet (Lupita Nyong’o) is struggling to ensure that her children do not fall victim to the street. She’s already lost her eldest daughter, Night (Taryn Kyaze) who has wearied of the unending drudgery of simply trying to make enough money to eat for one more day and taken up with a sleazy hustler with a flashy motorcycle. Phiona and her two brothers are all she has left and she means to see that they have a better life.
That better life comes in a most unexpected fashion. Curious as to where her brother sneaks off to, she follows him to a youth ministry and meets Robert Katende (David Oyelowo) who coaches soccer and teaches chess. Phiona is intrigued and wants to learn how to play. Robert senses she’s got something special and he isn’t wrong. It turns out that while the rest of his students are truly remarkable, Phiona is quite simply magic. There’s no other way to put it. She can see moves so far in advance that Robert claims only chess masters with years of experience can do what she can do. Robert subsequently fast-talks Phiona and his other students into chess tournaments against students at fancy private schools. The privileged students who come from family with money and position look down their noses at the slum kids. Until the slum kids, led by Phiona’s devastating talent, beat the pants off of anybody fool enough to sit across a chess board from them.
As Phiona’s reputation continues to grow she competes in more tournaments, even travelling to other countries. And as she is exposed to life outside of Katwe and sees how other people live, it creates yearnings and desires inside of her she never had to deal with before. Although Robert assures her that chess can be the bridge to a new life, Phiona doesn’t see how this can be and it’s going to take her own acceptance of her spiritual strength and awareness of the power of her intelligence in order for her to make changes in the life of her and her family.
It’s been far too long since I’ve seen a movie driven so well by the characters and such rich characters they are. Usually I single out a movie’s MVP but I honestly can’t do it with this one. Lupita Nyong’o commands the screen every minute that she’s on it and her Harriet is a woman of intense, towering pride and protectiveness. She’s the type of mother that doesn’t say “I love you” to her children. She shows it by putting food in their stomach, clothes on their back and looking out for their safety. And you may say that’s harsh and cruel but Katwe is a harsh and cruel place for adults and children alike.
But here’s one of the things I like most about QUEEN OF KATWE. Yes, Phiona and her family live in a slum of grim desperation and poverty but the movie neither beats us over the head with it nor sugarcoats the environment. As a result, Katwe and its people are almost like another character in the movie. It’s one of the most vibrant, lively settings I’ve seen in a movie recently and I wanted to know more about the people who live there, that’s how much this movie drew me in.
Madina Nalwanga is utterly charming as Phiona and she, along with the other young actors in the movie are a real treat to watch from start to finish. Keeps your eyes out for Ethan Nazario Lubega as Benjamin as he steals every scene he’s in. A lot of the humor in the movies comes from Benjamin who seems at times to have just a touch of excessive anxiety he has to deal with, poor little guy.
If this movie had been made back in the 1960s (I know it couldn’t have been but just bear with me while I make my point, okay?) Robert Katende would have been played by Sidney Poitier but since it was made today, we get the next best thing in David Oyelowo and believe me when I say that I don’t use the comparison lightly. Oyelowo plays Robert as a charming man of understated determination and total devotion to the kids he teaches. He has many obstacles to overcome to get Phiona and his kids to these tournaments and he does it with an honesty and grace that can’t help but win over everybody he talks to. Including Harriet who smells a scam somewhere in here and in a really touching scene, Robert has to win her over.
So here’s your homework assignment for the weekend. Set aside time to see QUEEN OF KATWE. It has outstanding performances and a story that we need now more than ever. We’re seeing examples of the worst of humanity fighting like rabid dogs for what they think is their right to lead this country and the people supporting them aren’t much better. So it’s easy to think that humanity is going to hell in a red-hot handbasket. QUEEN OF KATWE will remind you that the world is full of extraordinary people who are good and honest and give you hope that we’re all going to be just fine. I can’t recommend this movie enough.
2hrs 4 minutes