QUEEN OF KATWE (USA/PG/124mins)
Directed by Mira Nair. Starring Lupita Nyong’o, David Oyelowo, Madina Nalwanga, Martin Kabanza, Taryn Kyaze
THE PLOT:
Living in a Ugandan slum and selling vegetables to support her mother, Phiona (Madina Nalwanga) doesn’t see how her young life could possibly change, until she is introduced to the game of chess. It is not long before Phiona shows true skill and logical thinking when playing the game; two things that take her far.
THE VERDICT: Based on a true story, ‘Queen of Katwe’ is an uplifting story of skill and redemption, filled with likeable characters, but there are times when the film drags its heels slightly, as it tries to cover an extended time period and multiple characters.
Madina Nalwanga leads the cast as Phiona, and she makes the character stubborn, confident and charming. Nalwanga shows great range in the role, although there are times she struggles with the character’s more arrogant traits. Lupita Nyong’o takes on the role of Harriet, Phiona’s mother, and infuses the character with grace and guts.Nyong’o is always a joy to watch on screen, and her performance in ‘Queen of Katwe’ is formidable. David Oyeolwo plays Robert, the missionary who introduces Phiona and otherkids in the area to the game of chess. Oyelowo makes Robert caring and kind, and his relationship with the younger actors in the film is lovely. The rest of the cast features Taryn Kyaze, Ivan Jacobo, Ronald Ssemaganda Ethan Nazario Lubega and Nikita Waligwa.
William Wheeler’s screenplay for ‘Queen of Katwe’ is based on Tim Crothers’ ESPN article and book of the same name. The dialogue and characters in the film are well fleshed out, rounded and feel real, but in trying to cover the time period from 2007 to 2011, there are times when the film feels drawn out. As well as this, there are characters – such as Phiona’s sister Night (Taryn Kyaze) – who have obviously been put in the film to make a point about life for Phiona and people like her, but they drift in and out of the story sporadically, and feel as though they detract from the story as a whole.
As director Mira Nair has created characters that feel real and utterly relatable, and the chemistry on screen between the cast is delightful, but the pacing of the film lets it down, and it struggles to recover. That said, there is a feel good, joyful quality to the film that feels organic, and as a whole, the film feels honest and authentic.
In all, ‘Queen of Katwe’ is an uplifting tale of strength and skill, and even though the film itself drags its heels and often feels a little messy, the performances are great and ‘Queen of Katwe’ is a film with a lot of heart and tons of soul.
RATING: 4/5
Review by Brogen Hayes

  • filmbuff2011

    Even though it’s coming from Disney, Queen Of Katwe is getting a limited release here. That’s a shame, as this is a universal story of childhood ambition that is deserving of a wider platform and audience.

    Based on a true story, it follows Ugandan teenager Phiona Mutesi (Madina Nalwanga) as she tries to find a way past the limitations of her poor environment in Katwe. Her caring mother Nakku (Lupita Nyong’o) tries to do the best for Phiona and her brothers and sisters, but Phiona has grander ambitions. She becomes fascinated with the game of chess. Under the tutelage of inspirational chess teacher Robert (David Oyelowo), she learns that all of life’s answers can be found in the chessboard. It’s a symbol of her own battle for recognition and achievement – and a way for her to find her own safe zone. Phiona has a natural talent for chess and soon starts beating the boys in her class – and then the more proud city boys. This leads to regional championships, which she also wins. However, competing on an international stage against older, more experienced competitors could be a leap too far for this young lady who dreams of becoming a chessmaster…

    Indian director Mira Nair, who has lived in Uganda for a number of years, brings a wonderful sense of local colour and detail to this moving story of ambition, hope and belonging. The story was adapted from the Tim Crothers ESPN article by William Wheeler. However, the inspiration for making Phiona’s story really comes from a documentary that Nair made about Robert Katende, her chess teacher. It’s a film that’s as much about him as about Phiona – the two become a partnership, as he becomes a father figure to her. Chess is a platform for Phiona to challenge herself and dream bigger, while still holding on to what is most dear to her – her family. We can all identify with that, which makes this a universal story.

    Not that you would know it, but many of the younger performers in the film are first-time actors, including Nalwanga. So natural and unforced are their performances that they soon win you over with their charm, humour and warmth. Oyelowo and Nyong’o are solid anchors for the story, but it’s Nalwanga who impresses the most. Aware that chess isn’t the most visually thrilling of ‘sports’, Nair uses her roving camera to focus less on the chessboard and more on the faces as the characters ponder their next move. It’s a wise move that cranks up the tension while keeping the characters grounded. Queen Of Katwe is a fine, inspirational film that thankfully stays away from sports movies cliches and moves its pieces carefully into place. Recommended. ****

  • emerb

    Mira Nair, director of “Monsoon Wedding” brings us an inspirational and charming chess drama -“Queen of Katwe”. A coming of age tale and a real family friendly film, I found it both uplifting and heart-warming. It chronicles the true story of a young female Ugandan chess champion called Phiona Mutesi, who at age 11 became Uganda’s junior champion. In 2009 she travelled to the International Children’s Chess Tournament in Sudan and went on to compete in the World Chess Olympiad in Siberia. Having come from a very poor background in the Katwe slums a few miles south of the Ugandan capital, Kampala, hers is a truly remarkable tale.

    Nine year old Phiona Mutesi (Madina Nalwanga) is a girl living in the slums of Katwe, Kampala, Uganda. When we meet her, she is living in poverty with her strong-willed mother Harriet (Lupita Nyong’o) and three siblings. It is a bleak life but they work hard and try to make do with what they have. When Mutesi follows her younger brother to a church mission program where Coach Robert Katende (David Oyelowo) teaches chess to Katwe’s kids, she’s initially just curious. At first, hanging around the mission is just another step toward getting enough food
    to survive but she becomes drawn to the game and the spirit of competition. Despite being illiterate, she gradually discovers that she has an astounding
    aptitude for playing chess and with the help of Robert, she works hard to achieve her dream of becoming a chess champion. He sees her potential so he fights for her inclusion in tournaments. Phiona rises rapidly through the ranks, playing against privileged and educated young people who seem to take their good fortune for granted. Her road to success doesn’t come easy however. She needs money to compete in a local schools competition – especially given she’s not actually in school. She also needs to juggle her studies with looking after her younger brother and selling maize in the market. Her other trouble is her fiercely protective mother who has understandable concerns for her future and that of the family. Nonetheless she overcomes the barriers and within two years she becomes Uganda’s junior champion, and learns to read.

    Charismatic and effective, I found myself warming to the entire cast of this film. In her first acting role, newcomer Madina Nalwanga is superb. At first Phiona seems like a slow learner but we watch how she develops confidence, intelligence and strength as her chess skills progress. She learns that anything is possible if you
    put your mind to it. She plays the part with dignity and grace and I was impressed. Her mother, Harriet, is played by Lupita Nyong’o in her first live-action, non-CGI, non-voice-characterization role since her Oscar-winning
    supporting turn in “12 Years a Slave.” She is convincing in the part, she is a typical mother – a tower of strength and proud of her child but yet she cannot understand how chess and the encouragement of a stranger are more important than helping to feed the family. David Oyelowo is perfectly cast as Phiona’s mentor, giving one of the finest performances of his career. In a way, this kind hearted man provides the soul of the film. Making a chess movie is not an easy
    task. Chess is hardly the most cinematic sport and little about it makes it a riveting watch. One of “Queen Of Katwe’s” biggest strengths is that it doesn’t labour over the game of chess itself but rather focusses on the characters who play the game, their backstory and what chess means to them. The Afrocentric soundtrack is delightful and infectious, with upbeat music packed with actual Ugandan pop, hip-hop, and dancehall artists who boost the movie and help move the story along at a brisk pace. Although the director is now based in New York, she has also lived in Kampala for decades and that is immediately obvious with her key eye for detail. Together with her superb cinematographer Sean Bobbitt, the city of Kampala is brought to life with vivid colour and bustling streets. They really capture the chaos and energy of the city life – rubbish on streets, gridlocked roads, street traders, drivers stuck in traffic jams and motorbikes whipping by – it’s a non-stop frenzy. Visibly this is a Disney film suitable for all ages and it has all the cheery gloss, feel good moments, family bonding and kid-friendly humour you would expect but at its heart, there are deeper issues of class and society which are worth noting. It’s great to see
    a Hollywood production set in Africa for a change and this film is likely to spark interest and enthusiasm with many young Africans. “Queen of Katwe” is an inspirational story, a story of triumph against the odds, overcoming the daily struggle but never forgetting where you come from. Perhaps the biggest message in the film is that when young children grow up in dire poverty in developing countries, they often miss the chance to show the world their talents.