FILM REVIEW: QUEEN OF KATWE (2016) DIR. MIRA NAIR
The Queen of Katwe’s court is anything but royal. It is one of many handmade rustic chessboards in a slum outside of Kampala, the capital of Uganda, presided over by a missionary sports coach, Robert Katende (David Oyelowo). Having realized that his charges will probably not be successful athletes but do have an aptitude for chess, a game that is dear to him and which he is highly qualified to teach. The kids are poor and mostly illiterate but full of enthusiasm for the game. One, in particular, Phiona Mutesi (Madina Nalwanga) shows exceptional natural abilities.
The film directed by Mira Nair is an unusual collaboration between Disney and ESPN and it traces the trajectory of this gifted prodigy as she finds her self-worth through the encouragement of her mentor and taps into her own personal power to improve her life and help her family and ultimately provide inspiration, hope and pride for her community. Once she starts believing in herself she is practically unstoppable.
The road is, needless to say, not smooth and her obstacles are many and huge. Not the least being overcoming the objections of her mother, Harriet (Lupita Nyongo), to her obsession with chess which interferes with selling corn in the market which is crucial to the survival of the family. The battle for Fiona’s mind by Katende and her body by her mother is fraught with genuine passion by both parties and treated with subtlety, sensitivity and empathy and does not resort to over dramatizing or lapse into sentimentality by Nair.
Based on the book by Tim Crothers about the real Phiona Mutesi, the film fleshes out the circumstances of daily life in Katwe, the dynamics of Phiona’s family of three siblings, and the personal life of Katende. There are heartbreakingly sweet moments which really highlight and personalize the characters, like when the slum kids travel to a prosperous school for a chess competition. They are taken to a dorm with beds to sleep on. But none of them are used to sleeping on beds and choose instead to sleep on the floor beside the beds.
The acting is totally naturalistic, even understated. Oyelowo plays Katende as a modest man. Nyongo uses her expressive eyes eloquently to express her strength and her fear for the welfare of her family. Nalwanga as Phiona, a first time actor, is so utterly believable as a shy, introverted 10-year old who says little but projects a constant awareness of things going on around her, and is mesmerizing to watch. The village children are thoroughly endearing. Life in Katwe is certainly not prettified, but neither is it all grimness. It is vibrant and colorful and full of life. And when spontaneous joy erupts it looks like a great place to be.