“Queen of Katwe”: an inspiring tale of a real-life champion

Erin Bockenstedt, Staff Writer

Every young girl should take the time to see “Queen of Katwe,” the true story of Ugandan chess champion Phiona Mutesi. Not only is it a heartwarming and colorful story of a girl finding success despite her low social standing but Phiona, as played by first-time actress Madina Nalwanga, is a great and inspirational heroine.

When we are first introduced to Phiona, it is in her home in the slum of Katwe in Kampala, Uganda. She lives there with her widowed mother Harriet (Lupita Nyong’o), older sister and two younger brothers. Phiona is illiterate and must sell corn on the street but despite all that it is clear from the start that Phiona is a bright and lively girl. It is to the credit of the actress Nalwanga that I liked Phiona almost instantly.

Phiona, along with her energetic brother Brian (Martin Kabanza), crosses paths with the leader of a sports ministry named Robert Katende (David Oyelowo), who realizes that the children he looks after aren’t getting the hang of soccer and decides to teach them chess as an alternative.

As Phiona spends more time with Katende and the other children learning chess, it becomes clear that she has the skills of a prodigy. As she learns the game, many connections are made between strategies of the game and events in Phiona’s life, but the movie knows that the audience isn’t made up of two-year-olds, and never beats the ideas into us. It states the idea once, and leaves the people watching to make the connection on their own, something refreshing for a sports movie.

It is in the cast that “Queen of Katwe” is strongest. Nalwanga is extremely talented as Phiona, making her seem like a legit and complex person rather than an idealistic version of her. Nyong’o, who won a very well-deserved Oscar back in 2012 for her supporting role in “12 Years a Slave,” is fantastic as Phiona’s mother Harriet. Harriet could have easily been a harsh shrew in the hands of another actor, but Nyong’o makes her a beautiful, resilient and complicated woman who clearly loves her children even if she is tough on them. Oyelowo is charming and warm as Katende, bringing the natural charisma he has brought to roles like Martin Luther King in “Selma.” The young cast that makes up Phiona’s fellow chess players are all lovely and unique, bringing life to Phiona’s relationships with all of them. Kabanza especially stands out as Phiona’s brother.

If there are any problems with the film, it is that the rules of chess aren’t explained very clearly. Phiona is supposed to be a excellent player but we don’t really understand what makes her good because we don’t know much about chess. Nyong’o, while great, seems a tad too young for her part, most apparent when she has scenes with the actress who plays Phiona’s sister, who is supposed to be in her late teens, and Nyong’o looks barely five years older. Some events within Phiona’s home life near the end seem contrived for the sake of teaching a lesson but the actors rise above the material.

As directed by Mira Nair, who also made the great 2001 comedy “Monsoon Wedding,” “Queen of Katwe” is livened by bright colors and strong cinematography. The film is well-paced and has a lot of energy, setting it apart from the genre of “Uplifting Sports Movie.”

“Queen of Katwe” is a fun and heartwarming movie for people of all ages. It tells a good story and tells it in a crafty and fresh way with an excellent cast.

Final Verdict: 9 out of 10

Rated PG for thematic elements, an accident scene and some suggestive material.

Director: Mira Nair

Cast: Lupita Nyong’o, David Oyelowo, Madina Nalwanga, Martin Kabanza, Esteri Tebandeke, Taryn Kyaze, Ethan Nazario Lubega, Ivan Jacobo, Edgar Kanyike, Peter Odeke, Ronald Ssemaganda, Philip Luswata, Nikita Waligwa, Nicolas Levesque