Queen of Katwe

Prolific filmmaker Mira Nair has been delivering thought provoking feature films for a generation. Her 2002 international hit Monsoon Wedding put her on the map for Hollywood. In 2004 the Indian born filmmaker teamed with Reese Witherspoon for Vanity Fair and has since has few memorable films (Amelia starring Hilary Swank being one of her biggest bombs). Nair’s work has always been recognizable because of the lavish set decorations and bold colors. It was after her documentary on Ugandan teacher Robert Katende that Nair decided to make a film about Katwe’s famous chess player Phiona Mutesi. Nair delivers a humbling story, with wonderfully compassionate and dedicated performances that showcase the types of stories Disney should focus on, rather than remaking cartoons.

Nakku Harriet (Nyong’o,) is a widow living in the slums of Katwe, a village outside the capital city of Uganda. Nakku has no education, no job, and four mouths to feed. The Harriet family spend their days roaming the busy streets, selling what food and banana’s they can afford to buy. Youngest daughter Phiona (Nalwanga) stumbles upon Robert Katende (Oyelowo) and his chess playing club. Katende, one of the most educated men in the city, turns down higher paying jobs to work in youth ministry, and spends most of his time encouraging children like Phiona to apply themselves to chess. She picks it up very quickly, defeating all the local boys, her teacher, and soon is traveling around the country representing Katwe, which has never been known for anything but poverty.

Lupita Nyong'o is the beating emotional heart of the film

Nair and casting director Dinaz Stafford excel in the discovery of young new talent filling the roles of the real life people, which Queen of Katwe features standing by their acting counterparts during the credits. Despite being female, from India, and virtually playing outside the Hollywood system, Nair directs with colorful but classic storytelling flair. Despite all the hardships showcased in the script, we know this will end a happy story since Disney’s name is on the film. One of the characters teaching Phiona says the reason she likes the game is because the small piece (pawn) can become the queen. Through chess Katende teaches the children valuable life lessons they would not learn otherwise.

“Sometimes the place you are used to, is not the place you belong,” Katende says. Oyelowo (Selma) once again delivers a performance with deep conviction. William Wheeler’s script based on the ESPN article, offers equal screen time to Katende’s sacrifice as he does Nakku’s who both shape our lead character. This is the first time Nyong’o has been on screen since winning her supporting actress Academy Award for 12 Years a Slave (she has done motion capture and voice work for Star Wars and The Jungle Book). She is the beating emotional heart of the film. Alex Heffes original score also greatly facilitates that emotion in a film that leisurely walks towards it’s pleasing conclusion.

Final Thought

A beautifully humbling story of persistence and determination.


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