Saturday, November 16, 2019
US flag

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.

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

Recent posts

2 dead, 3 wounded in Calif. school shooting

Another school shooting has resulted in the death of 2 California high school students. The suspect shot himself and is in custody.

Mercury makes a transit; next in 2032

A transit of Mercury occurred today and was visible from the US, provided you had sunny skies. It was one of longest possible transits.

On the Naperville BWW racist incident

A racist incident at a Naperville, IL, sports bar indicates that the threads of racism are strong, perhaps as strong as ever.

IL bill could excuse absences to vote

A proposed law in IL could give students up to two hours during the school day so they could vote in the upcoming election.

Loan forgiveness gains some bipartisan support

One Republican from GA, who used to work under Betsy DeVos at the US Education Dept, offers a plan to forgive some student loan debt.

A band teacher is IL Teacher of the Year

IL named a band teacher the 2020 Teacher of the Year on Oct. 19. He individualizes music instruction and shares his work with 1000s.

‘Little Shop of Horrors’ bookends Halloween

Several high schools have decided to add a little spook to their musical stages in this season of Halloween. Music makes it happen.

New IL law ensures inclusion of LGBTQ+

A law will take effect next school year in IL that will require students to study LGBTQ history as part of the social studies curriculum.

MoCo doubles down on summer learning loss

Research is at least equivocal about summer learning loss, but maybe there's something to a new plan in Montgomery County, Md.

Downers North lights up the gym for Beth

Ongoing fundraising drives for a Downers Grove N. volleyball player killed by an intoxicated driver in Feb. are going strong in this western suburb.

High-payroll Yankees don’t make World Series

The World Series begins Tuesday, but some of the playoff games can teach us valuable things about youth sports, investment, etc.