I don’t play chess and I’ve never been to Africa. But like travel, movies take you to places you’ve never been and make them not foreign anymore. After Queen of Katwe, we should all feel chess champion-ready and like we’ve lived a day in the life of a Ugandan girl named Phiona.
Based on a true story originally reported in ESPN The Magazine, the film version of Phiona’s life follows the basic structure of “sports movie, kid edition” in which our heroine lugs water and sells maize to survive with her mother and siblings in the slums of Katwe (in the city of Kampala, Uganda’s capital). She stumbles upon a group of mostly boys playing chess, and is intrigued. She learns, is actually better than all of them, (cue montage), starts winning tournaments (overcoming obstacles along the way) and comes to find her true champion self at the end. That’s not a spoiler, really, as this type of film is predictable. Uplifting and sweet, yes, but unconventional? No.
There’s one bit of unconventional storytelling here, and that’s the relatively unknown (to American audiences, anyway) world of Uganda. Abject poverty makes this film’s setting harder to watch at times, even the Disney version. It makes your heart go out to all the thousands of girls who aren’t chess prodigy talents and who will never have a chance to escape the slums in which they grew up. They’ll continue to be uneducated and haul water for a bulk of their day and that’s simply not fair. Their lives are not easy, but there’s joy there, just like everywhere, and it’s especially necessary to see their world portrayed in a major film in the U.S. We can help by learning more about their world and finding ways to pitch in, show support and help drive change.
A few words on the extreme awesomeness that is Lupita Nyong’o and David Oyelowo, who play Phiona’s mother and chess coach, respectively. Powerful performances are to be expected from both, and they deliver here in spades. Newcomer Madina Nalwanga also does great work playing the title character herself with a steely gaze and true-to-life teen angst.
And it was awesome to see the real-world counterparts appear with their actor portrayers at the end, along with “where are they now” details to catch us up after the events in the film ended four years ago, especially as compared to side-by-side photos like most movies rely on. Here’s to hoping that Phiona and her siblings and her chess compatriots and all the other girls of Katwe continue to shine and soar, and turn their pawns into queens.
I guess I absorbed some chess knowledge after all.
Queen of Katwe
Director: Mira Nair
Writer: William Wheeler (Screenplay) and Tim Crothers (Based on the ESPN The Magazine article and book by)
Runtime: 2h 4mins
Image courtesy of Walt Disney Pictures.