If you’re like me, you saw the first trailer for the biopic Queen of Katwe and quietly made a pact with yourself that you would see this movie in the theater. The question of whether or not it’s actually going to be a good film might push you to spread the word to your friends or family, but the PG rating gives you pause. You decide that it could be worth it, and I’m here to tell you that yes—it is worth the ticket price and so much more.
Let’s start with the basics: Our heroine, Phiona Mutesi, grew up in Katwe, which is a region of the city of Kampala, Uganda. Her childhood is not one of great wealth nor is it one of great happiness—her mother is raising four children by herself and they cannot afford to go to school—but by chance, she encounters a youth group called the Sports Ministry Outreach. Some children play football (soccer), and others learn chess.
Phiona arrives to her first chess session and is teased for the way that she smells. Children’s cruelty to other children normally would be both a deterrent and a focal point of a drama like this, but instead, Phiona obtains water to bathe in, and returns the next day. This is a form of strength that is simply present in Phiona’s character, not as a direct result of her difficult childhood, as demonstrated in the portrayal of her older sister, who says, “I don’t think god cares about us one way or another.”
Phiona’s mother (Lupita Nyong’o) tries to support her children as best as she can, but stability doesn’t come easy to anyone in Katwe. Chess coach and football enthusiast Robert (David Oyelowo) becomes a provider of potential stability that the children need, even providing food for the kids to eat. There’s a palpable struggle of powers between the mother and coach that is not only respectable but it is also entirely relatable. When a student gets a nurturing mentor who can provide things that a parent cannot, the parent may feel a sense of inadequacy that isn’t voiced by the student. Rather than complain about the lack of food or shelter in her home, Phiona and her brother would come back without empty stomachs and encourage their mother and baby brother to eat their servings. The children practice their chess moves using bottle caps on a painted board when they aren’t with their group.
Phiona’s mother makes difficult choices in order to survive: she is uneducated and her children cannot read, she refuses to accept gifts, and refuses the advances of men (her husband died when Phiona was young). The chess group provides an opportunity that her children deserve, and so as we watch Phiona develop, win, and lose, we too see the potential for a secure life for her entire family.
Director Mira Nair (Monsoon Wedding, Mississippi Masala) takes what could have been a generic film into a rich and colorful panorama of life in Katwe. The children of the slum have an incredible liveliness that is awakened by learning, just the same as any other child. They are not pity cases; they are not to be ogled. They are whip smart, often adding hilarious lines to conversations, and have energy that is purposefully in contrast to the struggles of the main characters. When Phiona’s self esteem starts to bloom, her smile is infectious, and leads to her mother’s understanding of the importance of the game to her children.
The biggest revelations of the film don’t come from big wins; they come from losses. Katwe is its own obstacle for every character, and chess is a welcome respite from the challenges of the outside. Yet chess is not a problem solver, and only the players can come to terms with their lives as they are. Chess may have opened the doors out of the slums, but Phiona and the other children must always fight.
Success is never guaranteed, but when it happens, it’s celebrated because it brings pride to Katwe as a whole. She is “queen” not because she was royalty, but because she fought for something great using the limited resources and help that she had, just like anyone else. Phiona’s goals are literally foreign to everyone she meets from her city, but to even acquire such goals is worthy of commendation. To actually be as good as she is at chess at such a young age is phenomenal not only in her home country, not only in her continent, but also at an international level.
Nair embraces the fragile balance between drama and sentimental Disney-ism and comes out with a beautiful and unified film. It’s the rare story that works for the whole family and doesn’t have an animated element. It recalls some of the best of Disney’s live-action film offerings that I grew up watching, like The Color of Friendship and Remember The Titans, but with its contemporary setting and less-talked about problems specific to that region, it is a refreshing graduation beyond the familiar, and embraces the diversity of stories waiting to be told.