‘Queen of Katwe’—An African queen arrives in theaters

Lapacazo Sandoval | 9/30/2016, 12:58 p.m.
“Queen of Katwe,” is directed by Mira Nair and based on Tim Crothers’ book.
Lupita Nyong'o Harriet Mutesi and Madina Nalwanga as Phiona in "Queen of Katwe" Disney

“Queen of Katwe,” is directed by Mira Nair and based on Tim Crothers’ book. The fact that the game of chess is considered a sport is part of what makes this film, produced by Disney and ESPN, exciting to watch. All of the elements to make a “classic”—including the unlikely coach who helps bring victory—help to stitch the film together and bring those lumps to throats and tears to the eyes. “Queen of Katwe” is a double-hankie film.

Katwe is a poor township outside of Kampala, the Ugandan capital, and it is where we meet our chess-playing heroine, Phiona Mutesi, an unlikely chess prodigy played to perfection by newcomer, Madina Nalwanga.

Nothing about Phiona’s life is easy. She is one of three siblings under the eye of watchful, loving but exhausted mother, Nakku Harriet (Lupita Nyong’o), who has tragically lost her husband.

On the brink of disaster, day by day, the family barely gets by, selling food on the streets.

There is simply never enough money.

Filmed in Uganda, the movie highlights the country’s stark inequalities. The class division is plainly evident in who has the basics such as shelter, education, transportation and medical treatment.

Is it no wonder Nakku rarely smiles? Her eldest daughter, Night (Taryn Kyaze), is a rare beauty, and if she were strolling in the streets of Italy, she would no doubt end up on the fashion runways of the world.

In Katwe, the quickest offer for upward mobility for the young teenager is in the form of a motorcycle-riding rat of a man. It’s left to the younger children, Phiona and her younger brother, Brian (Martin Kabanza), to try to bring money to the family.

It’s a hard life, and then chess enters the children’s world, delivered by the kind and sly-as-a-fox Robert Katende (David Oyelowo), who teaches the game to Katwe’s children as part of a youth ministry.

Robert understands the lives of the children around him; his own youth was scarred by poverty and war. Despite the odds, he earned an engineering degree but lacks the necessary connections to obtain a job. No matter; he smiles and keeps the children motivated. When Oyelowo tells you that you can do something great, well, you believe it, which makes his coaching skills such a joy to watch. He is a fast-talker and uses that skill to enter his rag-tag students into a chess tournament held at a very snooty private school, where the young middle-class opponents are reluctant to shake the hands of the kids from Katwe.

The look on the faces of the nourished and well-dressed schoolboys when they are beaten by a girl—a poor girl, no less—has the same impact of the iconic character, Rocky, running up the stairs of the Philadelphia museum.

Director Nair shows more than her skill, which is impressive. It’s the love for the country and Phiona’s story that sets the film apart.

Visually it’s rich. The story structure is solid with a few twists that separates it from superficially similar movies.

Nair knows where she is going and understands the particulars of the culture and the place. It’s one of the many reasons she is one of the greats, as evident in past films such as “Mississippi Masala” and “Monsoon Wedding.”

This story, however, is based on a real young woman, Phiona, whose circumstances are brutal, and the film never minimizes the harrowing choices and painful limitations placed on women such as Harriet and Night.

Built on realism, Nair’s film does not suggest that winning chess matches is an instant, Disney-magical solution to the world’s injustice. To quote coach Robert, “Hope is not a tactic,” and for him, he did not allow despair to move him around the chess board of life without a firm strategy to “check mate.”

“Queen of Katwe” is a strong family film with a global appeal that many stories lack. The performance of newcomer Nalwanga is breathtaking.

Nair makes the basic parts of life exciting, and watching Phiona use chess to rise out of the ashes is as exciting as any soccer game or boxing match.

Opening Friday, Sept. 30, “Queen of Katwe” is rated PG (parental

guidance suggested).