Movie Review - Queen of Katwe

Phiona Mutesi is arguably the best or the most well-known, chess player in Uganda, a country in East Africa. Born in 1996, Mutesi grew up in the capital of Uganda, its largest city called Kampala, but she lived in the slums, a poor, destitute area known as Katwe, a place with one of the highest crime rates in the country. When Mutesi was three, her father died of AIDS and one of her older sisters died of an unknown cause. When Mutesi was nine, she joined a chess program run by the Sports Outreach Institute, which taught her how to play. The Institute is a Christian mission that works to provide relief and religion through sports to the world's poorest people.

Directed by Mira Nair, and written by William Wheeler, this film follows Phiona, played by Madina Nalwanga, from 2007 to 2011 when she rose to prominence. It's produced by ESPN and in many ways feels like a sports film, typical, Disney sports film at that. It's inspirational and all about being uplifting. Nair as a director has such a wondrous and colorful palette that can make slums seem like a lovely place to live. Nair, however, has a way with actors. She gets good performances for sure, even from the fresh faces, the very fresh faces.

Despite the beautiful images, we do feel the struggle of Phiona's family and the hardships of Katwe. Nair hits us with emotional punches that are utter knockouts. A lot of it coming in scenes anchored by Oscar-winner, Lupita Nyong'o (12 Years a Slave and Star Wars: The Force Awakens) who here plays Phiona's mother who struggles to pay rent or for healthcare. Nyong'o adds a gravitas and a weight to the piece that doesn't drag the film but provides a proper force of grounding.

David Oyelowo (Selma and Red Tails) co-stars as Robert Katende, the teacher and coach who leads Phiona and the other children in the chess competitions. He is the film's light. He is absolute light in a dark tunnel. He is warmth. He is charm. He is compassion and faith, and unlike most sports films, specifically the recent Jesse Owens biopic, he's black.

Of course, there's Denzel Washington in Remember the Titans (2000) or The Great Debaters (2007), but, in so many sports films, the coach, the mentor or the major influence will always be a white person, thus perpetuating the white savior myth, as if black people can't lift themselves up and out. Help from white people is true and not unwanted always, but too much is the paradigm in films.

I might have been more impressed with this movie though, if this summer I hadn't seen a documentary, which hits a lot, if not all the same themes but was set in the United States. That documentary is T-Rex, about one of the first female boxers to compete in the Olympics. Phiona has the added issue of low self-esteem based on her poverty status, a problem not afflicting T-Rex too much.

Also, boxing is an easier sport to understand than chess. This film to me has the same problem as last year's Pawn Sacrifice, the film about chess player, Bobby Fischer. One has to know chess because that film and this one don't explain how chess is played. Nair could have perfectly recreated each and every chess game the real Phiona Mutesi played move-for-move, or the chess games could have been random and nonsensical. I wouldn't know.

That's why the film shines when it's less about Phiona strategizing, which it really isn't about, and it's more about how the places she goes and people she faces affect her psyche and hope for a better life than the one she has in Katwe.

The first half-hour to hour is a bit slow, but the movie overall works very well. While poverty is not skirted as an issue, the film does avoid heavier issues therein Uganda. It touches briefly on morality issues, but the tough and obstinate, Christian values are kept at bay. Uganda's anti-gay stances are avoided for example.

The whole thing stays very much Disney codified. The good thing about that is it provides a very rich and catchy soundtrack. There are two songs that I wouldn't mind hearing at the 89th Academy Awards. The first is "#1 Spice" by Young Cardamom & HAB. The other is "Back to Life" by Alicia Keys.

Four Stars out of Five.
Rated PG for thematic elements and suggestive material.
Running Time: 2 hrs. and 4 mins.


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