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Queen of Katwe: Movie Review

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On the surface, Queen of Katwe is an inspirational story about a young chess-prodigy from Uganda who manages to become a Grandmaster player. It’s based on the real-life story of Phiona Mutesi, a street girl who lived with her single mother and three other siblings, who survive by selling maize in Katwe, a sprawling slum in Uganda where the movie takes place. One day, walking through the muddy roads of her town with a basket of maize perfectly balanced atop her head, Phiona stumbles upon a children’s chess group run by Robert Katende, an unemployed engineer and soccer coach in Kampala. Katende invites Phiona to join, notices her special abilities and the rest you can imagine.

Or can you?

What’s so unexpected and welcoming about director Mira Nair’s film is how much the movie pulsates with life. The first thing Ms. Nair does right is resist the temptation to shoot the film as the story of a bedraggled African community limiting a child prodigy who would flourish under any better circumstances.

queen-of-katwe-2Yes, Phiona and her family are poor, and they constantly have to fight off starvation, eviction, and the pervading pessimism that can so easily plague anyone under such dire living conditions. We see Phiona’s mother, Harriet, played by Oscar-winner Lupita Nyong’o, carry a distressed weariness in her face as she tries to scrape for rent and food and keep her children out of trouble. We see Phiona’s eldest sister abandon the family’s destitute conditions for the temporary comforts a boyfriend with some money can bring. We even see Coach Katende, Phiona’s chess instructor, struggle to find a stable job that pays suitably for someone with an engineering degree.

But amidst Phiona and her family’s trials is a world full of vibrancy and spirit where there is dignity to be found in the struggles of life. We don’t see Phiona and other poor children foregoing a childhood because they have to work rather than go to school. Instead, we see them find and make a childhood out of their circumstances by finding the joy in selling commodities in the street, in ambling down the unpaved roads of Katwe, in learning to play chess in a colorless shack.

One of the many smart things Ms. Nair and screenwriter William Wheeler do is show us how chess plays two functions in Phiona’s life: It’s simultaneously a game that gains its character and purpose through her native Katwe, and a force propelling her out of it by showing her what more could be of her life. At first, Phiona learns through observation and error. She’s fascinated to see how other children in her chess group absorb the game into their lives––they claim their “safe squares” on the board, build strategies to “kill” each other’s pieces, develop power and aggressiveness to “defeat the city boys,” and fraternize over porridge. Phiona comes to thrive in how the game sparks a fierce competitive drive in her but also an enduring fellowship with Coach Katende and her chess club.

It’s as the movie progresses that chess becomes an opportunity for Phiona to see worlds outside her bubble in Katwe. Phiona comes to yearn more than what her small town of Katwe can provide. What’s commendable about this aspect of the movie is how Ms. Nair and screenwriter William Wheeler handle this tug-and-pull in Phiona’s life. Although we see Phiona start to feel above her community, the movie never undermines the virtues in this splendid town and its people. Actress Lupita Nyong’o also aids the film considerably by playing Phiona’s mother, Harriet, as someone aware of her limitations as a mother and provider, but still smart enough and conscious enough to foresee what Katwe can provide Phiona that no other place can: roots and kinship.

All this praise isn’t to say that there aren’t some shortcomings to this inspiring movie. One does come out of it wishing that Ms. Nair immersed us more in the gambits and strategies of chess. (It is after all a movie about chess.) Still, no need to kvetch when a movie so ably inhabits its heroine’s headspace, and which depicts an Africa that’s pouring with life and energy. Too many times has Hollywood inundated audiences with stories about a suffering Africa, films that serve as STOP signs against visiting such a sprawling and diverse continent. Ms. Nair’s Africa in Queen of Katwe, on the other hand, is all about demystifying the continent and stripping it off its western stereotypes. Instead, the director shows us an Africa brimming with life.

Queen of Katwe (2016)
Director:   Mira Nair
Studio:  Disney
Genre:  Drama, Sports
MPAA:  PG
Release Date:  September 30th, 2016
Author:  Braulio Ramirez

Braulio Ramirez Braulio Ramirez is a graduate from the University of California at Berkeley, where he majored in history and contributed to The Daily Californian as a movie critic. He currently resides in San Diego, California, where he was born and raised, and now spends most of his time discovering new coffee places to load up on caffeine and inspiration. On his spare time, he tries to write.

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