By: Oberst von Berauscht –
Phiona Mutesi (Madina Nalwanga) is a young teenage girl growing up in the slums of Katwe, Uganda in a ramshackle home with her mother (Lupita Nyong’o) and siblings. Phiona sells corn on the streets to help her mother pay the rent and buy food, and one day on her way home from work she spies a group of children being fed and playing Chess, led by teacher Robert Katende (David Oyelowo). Katende bids her to come in and join the proceedings, and she returns again and again, gradually developing a love for the game.
Katende takes it upon himself to help Phiona awaken her intellect and excel at the game, but there are troubles at home, as they are evicted from their house and are effectively rendered homeless.
Director Mira Nair (Monsoon Wedding) was the perfect choice to help this story of an unlikely Chess Champion. Conventional Western views of Uganda don’t exactly include Chess as a pastime, and Nair’s films have often dealt with these sort of cultural contrasts, smashing these ethnocentric norms. The film also doesn’t make appeals to Western ears, allowing its characters to speak the unique Ugandan dialect of English and even some Swahili. This elevates the film far above your average Hollywood depiction of Africa.
Visually, Queen is full of contrasts as well. The clothing worn by Phiona and family reflecting their personal situation, and often their state of mind, vividly. The more formal sort of cloths worn by the wealthier African characters as well as the European characters highlights the fish out of water unease that the Chess players coached by Robert Katende feel. There is an outsider status they contend with, and eventually rise above.
The cast of The Queen of Katwe is the film’s strongest suit. David Oyelowo is brilliant as the Chess coach juggling his own family life with his devotion to the children he mentors. He feels slightly emasculated by the fact that his wife is the primary breadwinner, but never lets that interfere with his mission. He himself came from a humble past and as a result is the ideal role model and remains a calming and encouraging influence for Phiona and the other Chess players of the Katwe slums (whom he affectionately calls his Pioneers). Lupita Nyong’o delivers a particularly heart-rending performance as Phiona’s mother Nakku, who as a single mother is violently defensive of her children, wanting the best for them, but also feeling deeply suspicious of any charity. The heart of the film, though, belongs to newcomer Madina Nalwanga, whose heartbreak with every failure but courage to carry on propels the film at every turn.
The Queen of Katwe is yet another entry in an ever-increasing list of Disney-produced sports movies. All of these films follow a basic template of opening with the lead character at a low-point, introducing them to a new challenge that they take upon themselves with gusto, then hit a roadblock or two, but ultimately succeed in bettering themselves. Like it or not, this is a pattern that most sports films adhere to, and this film doesn’t distance itself from that in any way.
Now, the primary difference between these films are the way they explores these themes. The Queen of Katwe distinguishes itself with the feeling of being completely unvarnished, dealing with some very real and heavy themes which the abject poverty of its leads have to live with. This is buoyed by positively electric performances by the principle cast, which give the film an energy and memorable character that makes it far more than just fluff.
The Queen of Katwe is an uplifting, affecting story of endurance and inner-strength, given gravity by a host of stellar performances.
The Queen of Katwe (2016) Drinking Game
Take a Drink: every time someone mentions Chess by name
Take a Drink: every time a player says “Checkmate”
Do a Shot: every time someone doubts Phiona’s abilities
Do a Shot: for every game Phiona wins