Review: Queen of Katwe

Queen of Katwe is the type of movie that gives you that extra push of motivation and hope when you’re at the brink of giving up. The film, based on a true story, follows the journey of how Phiona Mutesi (Madina Nalwanga) rises from a background of poverty in the slums of Kampala (Katwe) to becoming Uganda’s top chess player. Yet, Queen of Katwediffers from your typical “started from the bottom” film in that Director Mira Nair keeps the script in line with actual real life events that occurred in order to maintain the film’s authenticity. This authenticity is immediately captured in the first few scenes of the movie: captivating aerial views introduce us to the beautiful, bold colors that decorate Kampala, Uganda (Katwe), while African music plays in the background accompanied by loud traffic and bustling streets.

Here, Disney steers away from a lot of clichés that are popular within the film industry. Yes, this is another story of an impoverished youth that goes through strenuous hurdles to realize their full potential, but Queen of Katwe does not feature two major characters who magically end up in love and realize that they are perfect for each other. There is an over-abundance of beautiful, black leads and actors stay true to the culture they are portraying. Bless Disney for doing this in a way that doesn’t seem artificial. The characters are less contrived and stay away from the typical full-faced makeup and overly-dressed stereotypes that we see in some films. Mira even stays true to the impact of religion in Ugandan culture by having numerous scenes where a short prayer is said in hopes of prosperity.

Queen of Katwe also differs in how it focuses on the female lead. I feel incomplete without giving light to one beauty many of us are dying to see, Lupita Nyong’o. Lupita plays an overprotective yet badass mother, Nakku Harriet. Despite the death of her husband and financial instability, Harriet never gives up on her kids. She does not have the money to put them through school and give them career aspirations but she does have the wits and TLC to keep the distressed group together. David Oyelowo also nails it (unsurprisingly) in this film. As Robert Katende, the coach for The Pioneers chess club, he goes above and beyond to support this unique group of children. He is able to simplify the game of chess, a feature that also grabs your attention to the logistics of the game as an audience member, and explain the pieces to children by creating analogies that best represent their lives. The queen of course, was described as being the most powerful. Actor David Oyelowo notes how the film captures Phiona’s triumph: giving power to the female lead rather than having another movie about a persistent male coach who leads his once discouraged team to victory.

Initially, it might seem like an easy choice to give up on this film because of its lack of action-packed scenes and dramatization. What Queen of Katwe lacks in action, it makes up for in emotion. Although the beginning of the plot appears a bit underdeveloped as it rapidly shifts from one scene to the next (Phiona goes from playing one game of chess with her classmates to magically winning gold during a championship), the film does get better at this towards the end, where pivotal moments are drawn out to better capture not only Phiona’s plight, but the impact that it has on everyone around her. One defining moment that struck me during this film is when Phiona, from rural Uganda, is facing another well-off player and the signs of defeat begin to cover her face. Katende, being the hopeful and inspiring coach that he is, yells from the background: “You belong here”. Immediate goosebumps filled my skin and I feel as though I’m in the stands with Katende rooting for Phiona and others who have faced similar emotions. It is a series of little moments like these that keep your attention. Watching Phiona gradually climb the rankings as a chess player despite some of the appalling factors she faces is worthwhile and very uplifting. Being a part of this journey, encompassed in the authenticity which director Mira Nair’s focus brings to life, makes this film truly inspiring and worth watching.

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