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Uganda's Chess Star: Queen Of Katwe

Updated on October 15, 2016

In 2007, Phiona Mutesi and her siblings helped their mother keep a roof over their heads by selling corn on the streets of poverty-stricken Katwe section Kampala, Uganda. After they finish this task one day, Phiona (Madina Nalwanga) and her brother Brian (Martin Kabanza) stop by the sports club at a nearby mission to see what the children are doing. While he seeks work as an engineer, Robert Katende (David Oyelowo) oversees the soccer and chess clubs at the mission. The siblings venture into the chess room where Robert makes sure the youngsters feel welcome. He quickly sees that Phiona learns quickly. Phiona's development in the sport becomes the subject Queen Of Katwe.

While the children at the mission hone their games, Robert works to enter them in competitions with school children. He also has to convince Phiona's widowed mother, Nakku Harriet (Lupita Nyong'o) to allow Phiona to delelop her skills and compete, as well as to attend the mission's school. This happens as Phiona's family gets evicted from their home, and Phiona's older sister Night (Taryn Kyaze) leaves with another man against Harriet's advice. As she wins tournaments, Phiona doesn't want to do anything but focus on her game and work her way to the rank of grandmaster. Meanwhile, Phiona takes her game to tournaments throughout Africa, as well as competing in Russia. There, she finds others who can give her a challenge.

Queen Of Katwe, based on a book by Tim Crothers, is a familiar and feel-good movie about someone overcoming huge obstacles. The film benefits from shooting primarily in Uganda, for that gives viewers some sense of the life Phiona and her fellow chess players faced. Those conditions factor into the screenplay from William Wheeler, as does the sense of camaraderie of those in the chess club. Robert not only mentors Phiona, but he also has top pupils in Benjamin (Ethan Nazario Lubega) and Ivan (Ronald Ssemaganda). These boys often compete in the same tourneys as Phiona, and show their love of a challenge with a smile and a snap of the fingers. The movie marks Wheeler's second collaboration with director Mira Nair, following her 2012 film The Reluctant Fundamentalist. Nair slowly charts Phiona's development over a five-year period as she starts to grow accustomed to a different way of living and a sense of accomplishment that extends beyond a checkmate. There is a little bit of product promotion that I wish Nair had not included, but I still enjoyed following Phiona on her journey.

Queen Of Katwe marks the film debut of Nalwanga, whom I read was discovered in a Ugandan dance class. Like the other young actors in the cast, Nalwanga displays a natural charm as Phiona, who knows that selling corn feeds and shelters her and her family, but she also wants to know more than working. She and Brian practice the game with bottlecaps when they should be sleeping. Phiona not only doesn't want to grow into the life Harriet has, but she also doesn't want to be like Night, who gets lured into a different type of life by a smooth-talking man Harriet doesn't like. Oyelowo does a fine job as Robert, a young father with a supportive wife in Sara (Esther Tebandeke). He may want to be an engineer, but he also wants to make a difference in the lives of Phiona and others. Robert helps to teach Phiona to read, and gets her into proper schooling. His back story is also a good one, as he shows how he found a way to pay for his education. He uses those same skills to help to finance their entry in the tourneys. Nyong'o shows a quiet strength as Harriet, who has reservations about Phiona's ambitions, but sacrifices to support them. Harriet also makes sure her daughter never gets too big a head about the trophies she accrues. At the end of the movie, viewers get to see the real Phiona, Robert, Harriet, and others, and learn how they fare today.

Queen Of Katwe tells a story that may come as a bit of a surprise to some viewers. A girl with no formal education starts to learn a skill that helps her develop more skills and see a life where she can forge a path in life that doesn't follow the expectations of those who live in the slums of Kampala. Phiona Mutesi gets a look at life beyond her part of the world, where one bad break can have an adverse effect on a family. Through chess, Phiona decides she wants to become accomplished at that game. As a result, she pursues other options that others don't get, or imagine getting.

On a scale of zero to four stars, I give Queen Of Katwe three stars. A board to opportunity.


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    • profile image

      Pat Mills 16 months ago from East Chicago, Indiana

      Thanks Jodah. The film is a good human interest story, as well as a good sports story. I hope you'll be able to enjoy it at least as much as I did.

    • Jodah profile image

      John Hansen 16 months ago from Queensland Australia

      This sounds like a wonderful movie, and the fact it is based on a true story make it all the more valuable to watch. Thanks for sharing this review.

    • profile image

      Pat Mills 16 months ago from East Chicago, Indiana

      Thanks Mel. The world often finds that some of its best talent comes from places without advantages of any sort, and reality TV can only put its spotlight on so many. The spotlight is appreciated, but not always necessary as long as someone recognizes and appreciates skill.

    • Mel Carriere profile image

      Mel Carriere 16 months ago from San Diego California

      This looks like a checkmate. How much human talent is hidden in third world slums? Great review.