Disney’s “Queen of Katwe” inspires us to look past labels given by poverty and gender and consider how without equal education some brilliant minds might be wasted. It’s both a feminist movie and one that urges us to provide opportunities for others.
You may have heard it’s a movie about chess, but don’t let that scare you. You don’t have to play chess to understand this movie. Based on Tim Crothers’ book, “The Queen of Katwe: A Story of Life, Chess, and One Extraordinary Girl’s Dream of Becoming a Grandmaster,” this sports drama is about the life of Phiona Mutesi, a Ugandan chess prodigy from Katwe. William Wheeler’s script begins at the end where an orange-clad Phiona is entering a major tournament before taking us back and dropping us into the chaos of Katwe, an area in the capital city of Kampala, Uganda.
The Katwe is busy streets where street merchants crowd around cars, selling everything from food to trinkets. The Katwe of Phiona is one of dirt floors and streets, barely standing sheds, slapped together by mismatched boards and windows without glass. As the second oldest, she works selling food. Her older sister has left the home for a suspiciously promiscuous lifestyle that their mother Hakku Harriet (Lupita Nyong’o). Phiona’s life is focused on food: selling it and getting enough to eat.
One day, Phiona (Madina Nalwanga) follows her brother Brian (Martin Kabanza) to a large shed-like structure. Many other children are there and after cleaning up, the kids begin to set up boards. Their teacher is an engineer, Robert Katende (David Oyelowo), who has found part-time employment in Sports Outreach while he waits for a job in his field to open up. Although Katende plays soccer, when he learns that some of the children won’t play because they can’t afford treatment for injuries, he decides to teach the children a less dangerous sport: chess.
Yes, chess is a sport and this is a sports biopic. Under the direction of Mira Nair (“Mississippi Masala” and “Salaam Bombay!”), the Ugandan dancer Madina Nalwanga is not precocious, but emulates quiet strength and determination that grows as she matures. Wheeler’s script manages to explain some notions about chess like a pawn becoming a queen, but you don’t have to know stress to understand what is happening. Nair keeps the tension despite our full knowledge of Phiona’s fate. Phiona was, after all, only 11 when she won Uganda’s women’s junior championship.
British Nigerian Oyelowo portrays Katende as a quietly astute judge of character. He is less the charismatic leader that he was in “Selma” and more the class clown and trickster who has grown up and intends to give back. Yet Oyelowo’s Katende is also a man of determination, one who through determination got an education. Katende is a real person who began his Chess Academy and Mentoring Center with only five children, but now has over 300. Mexican-born Kenyan Nyong’o is both suspicious of Katende’s intent and yet yearns for something more for her daughter. She isn’t a woman to be pitied and we hear little about the father of the children.
The movie and the script aren’t without a few glitches. The outburst by Katende during a vital tournament seems unnecessary, but, not having read the book, it might be true. The slum and problems of disease have been downplayed, but the script does cover the problems that arise when Phiona sees more of the world than her mother and gets treated to the bounty of the upper classes and of other cultures. There’s a point during the movie when I couldn’t help but wonder and then later, as I checked, I learned that according to ESPN, her father died of AIDS. There is no mention of AIDS in the movie and that might have taken the focus off of the Phiona, even if it added to the desperation of her plight.
“Queen of Katwe” is a feel-good movie about a girl who became a chess champion when her circumstances and even her sex were against her. We do get to see dance and the score by British composer Alex Heffes (“The Last King of Scotland” and “Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom”) is infectious–not surprisingly we do get to see the kids dancing. At the end the movie pairs up actor with the real person and tells us what happened to them. “Queen of Katwe” is a must-see for both gal and guy geeks and for all young girls who will likely wonder whether to cover up their talents or explore them. “Queen of Katwe” opens for limited release on Sept. 23 and then nationwide on Sept. 30 in the U.S., but already premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival on Sept. 10.