Movie review: Queen of Katwe

Unabashedly sentimental and melodramatic, Queen of Katwe is a movie based on the true story of a young girl from a poor township outside of Kampala, the Ugandan capital. She discovers the power of her mind through chess, thanks to an inspiring missionary teacher. Even if you know what’s coming based on the Disney-ESPN partnership, it’s still hard not to be moved by the story, mainly because Africa is painted in real colors. The triumph of mind over poverty is powerful as a result.

Tim Crothers, who wrote the book on which the movie is based, used to write for Sports Illustrated. The story here belongs to Phiona Mutesi, played by Madina Nalwanga in her screen debut. She’s a natural talent, and it’s hard to take your eyes off of her as she bravely walks about the world in her poor town. Her widowed mother Harriet (Lupita Nyong’o) sells food on the street but never has enough money in a Ugandan economy that is entirely cash-based. Harriet has to pay up front for medical treatment, for instance, but can’t. Phiona’s older sister hooks up with a questionable guy on a motorcycle; we don’t learn much about him, except that most of the characters in the movie recognize him as a no-good influence.

But Phiona, who can barely read when the movie starts out, has a mind that can strategize like few other kids. Strolling through town one day, she happens upon a group of kids playing chess and shows an interest, catching the eye of the chess coach, Robert Katende (David Oyelowo), who uses the game as part of his ministry for a local church. Phiona, who discovers her mind is capable of coming up with strategies some eight moves in advance, starts winning. Katende’s fast-talking doesn’t hurt, either, as he gets her into a tournament at a private school that poor kids normally wouldn’t be allowed to attend. In fact, one opponent shows hesitation when shaking Phiona’s hand before a match.

She eventually advances to more national and continental tournaments where, as can be expected in every underdog sports story, she suffers initial setbacks when faced with players who have more experience in tournaments but triumphs in the end through determination. The victories bring recognition that she has never known. They bring opportunities for better schooling that she’s not sure she can take advantage of. But what will it mean for her family if she can no longer help her mother sell food scraps on the street? Harriet, her mother, even worries what might happen if the promises aren’t delivered because of their poverty.

  • A chess grandmaster uses the game to teach life skills (K-QED)

It has a happy ending, though, and it’s a movie worth seeing. Just watching well-dressed and -fed schoolboys lose to a poor girl is very rewarding and heartwarming.

On wide release in US theaters on Friday, September 30, Queen of Katwe, has a runtime of 124 minutes and is rated PG. It features a few scary moments and slight hints of sexuality. It’s directed by Mira Nair, who also directed Mississippi Masala, Monsoon Wedding, and Vanity Fair. We saw the movie in Muskegon, Michigan.

We review movies in order to support Illinois Learning Standards in the fine arts, especially 26.A.4b (Understand how the primary tools, support tools and creative processes—researching, auditioning, designing, directing, rehearsing, refining, presenting—interact and shape drama, theater and film production), 26.A.5 (Analyze and evaluate how the choice of media, tools, technologies and processes support and influence the communication of ideas), and 27.B.5 (Analyze how the arts shape and reflect ideas, issues or themes in a particular culture or historical period), among others.

About the Author

Paul Katula
Paul Katula is the executive editor of the Voxitatis Research Foundation, which publishes this blog. For more information, see the About page.