Apparently September has been my Based On A True Story Month. Because, yes, Queen of Katwe is based on a true story. As with all the other true life movies I’ve seen this month, I’m going to compare this one to the others and to the first one – the one making the most money right now and the one likely to keep on making the most money – Sully. Queen of Katwe is no Sully. Queen of Katwe is amazing and heartrending and uplifting and makes the game of chess super exciting. It’s not boring, it’s not rote, and it’s not starring America’s Male Sweetheart.
The more I see these other movies – Queen of Katwe, Denial, and Deepwater Horizon – Sully lowers in my esteem. I’ve constantly wanted to go back and make my rating lower after seeing each of these movies. The acting in Sully is still great, but the movie itself just seems like so much feel good pap. And I realize many critics are going to accuse Queen of Katwe of being feel good pap, particularly because it’s from Disney (I’ve already seen reviews saying just that). But it isn’t pap. It’s a great movie, with a great story, wrenchingly, emotionally told.
The story takes place in Uganda, in the slum called Katwe, the biggest and worst slum in the capitol city. Robert Katende (the utterly amazing David Oyelowo, Oscar-worthy as always) is an educated engineer married to a schoolteacher, the supportive, loving, and yet very real woman Sara (Esther Tebandeke). They have a young daughter and Robert wants to make a good life for his family. But things aren’t great in Uganda, and he’s somewhat unwillingly taken a job with a sports ministry, since he used to play football (aka soccer). However, he meets two boys, Ivan (Ronald Ssemaganda) and Brian (Martin Kabanza) who explain why they don’t want to play sports – their families can’t afford it if they get hurt. And we see the proof of this later in the movie.
But these boys are talkative and vibrant and Robert has an idea – he decides to teach them how to play chess. In almost no time, he has a room full of boys and girls from these wretched slums who are all learning to play chess, and play it well.
Brian and his sister, Phiona (Madina Nalwanga), are supposed to be selling maize in the streets in order to earn money. Their father is dead, their mother, Harriet (Lupita Nyong’o doing fierce, proud, protective, hopeful, and heartbroken at the same time) is doing all she can, but the family has almost nothing and she has their younger brother, Richard (Ivan Jacobo and Nicolas Levesque) and their older sister, Night (Taryn “Kay” Kyaze) to contend with. Night is the example of what Phiona is likely to become – Night isn’t a “bad girl”, she’s just desperate to not be hungry, to have more than one set of clothes, and to have an actual roof and walls in what she calls her home. In a place filled with this level of poverty, though, that means that Night is willing to do things that her mother, wisely, doesn’t want her to.
Brian doesn’t tell Phiona where he’s going instead of selling maize, but she follows him and discovers the chess club. The other children try to reject her, but Coach Robert doesn’t allow it, and Phiona and Brian, and the others, come back daily.
The ministry provides porridge for the children, which is more and better food than they’re getting normally, which is a huge draw. But the bigger draw is the game itself, the chance to use their minds for more than desperate begging and even more desperate living. Coach Robert teaches, encourages, and does his best to protect these children, including intervening with their parents and chaperoning them to tournaments.
As with any other sports movie (and make no mistake, this is a sports movie), we follow the trials and tribulations of the kids and their coach. Only the trials these kids are facing are far harsher and more demanding than most trials athletes go through. This kind of poverty is almost incomprehensible for someone in the U.S. You’ll think the “house” that Phiona’s family lives in is a hovel – until they’re made homeless and you realize that, yes, it’s truly worse. Daily survival is not a given in Katwe, and the crushing poverty makes everything harder, every chance riskier, every decision more fraught with hope and peril.
The acting is uniformly excellent which is impressive considering that almost all the children are first time actors, Nalwanga in particular. Phiona has to carry most of this movie, and Nalwanga does so as if she’s spent her whole life acting. All the kids are natural, distinct, funny, and fully three-dimensional. So are the adults.
The direction and cinematography are also excellent – this is one of the best “you are there” movies I’ve seen in a long while. And you are there, really there, in Uganda and, for a short time, Sudan and Russia, with Phiona and Coach Robert and the others. You’re not watching these people as background while the dashing spy races through their midst on his way to save the world. Katwe isn’t background, it’s the story.
One of the best things about this movie is that there is no “white savior”. There are almost no white people at all. It’s both a relief and wonderfully immersive. I can think of one opponent for Phiona, a white woman from Canada (who has no lines), and half of the rap duo who do the song during the credits. And background Russians for about five minutes of screen time, total. Other than that, no white people. There are no tourists in Katwe – tourists don’t go to slums this horrific.
What this movie shows, too, is that regardless of skin color, for the most part money looks down on poverty. The children from Katwe are looked upon as less than by everyone who has a dime to their name other than those at the ministry. It’s Coach Robert, he who is smart, wily, and dedicated, who ensures and persists and even tricks those trying to keep his kids out of the tournaments who gets them in. Then it’s Phiona who keeps them in.
At their first tournament the Pioneers – Phiona, Ivan, and Benjamin (Ethan Nazario Lubega) in particular – beat the older kids who come from money. They also start to see that there is a better world outside of Katwe, and long to spend more time in it. Phiona is a chess prodigy and while Coach Robert doesn’t ignore the other children, he definitely focuses attention on Phiona, because she has the best chance of winning national tournaments, which she begins to do with frequency. And the more she wins, the more Phiona wants to achieve, the more drive she gets, and the more she’s able to see that there might indeed be a life outside of Katwe.
But can chess, one man’s dedication, and a prodigy really rescue a family from abject poverty? Even if you know the answer going into the movie, Phiona’s journey is one worth going on. Queen of Katwe is truly a must-see movie.
Rating: 5 Stars
For 10-year-old Phiona Mutesi (Nalwanga) and her family, life in the impoverished slum of Katwe in Kampala, Uganda, is a constant struggle. Her mother, Harriet (Nyong’o), is fiercely determined to take care of her family and works tirelessly selling vegetables in the market to make sure her children are fed and have a roof over their heads. When Phiona meets Robert Katende (Oyelowo), a soccer player turned missionary who teaches local children chess, she is captivated. Chess requires a good deal of concentration, strategic thinking and risk taking, all skills which are applicable in everyday life, and Katende hopes to empower youth with the game. Phiona is impressed by the intelligence and wit the game requires and immediately shows potential. Recognizing Phiona’s natural aptitude for chess and the fighting spirit she’s inherited from her mother, Katende begins to mentor her, but Harriet is reluctant to provide any encouragement, not wanting to see her daughter disappointed. As Phiona begins to succeed in local chess competitions, Katende teaches her to read and write in order to pursue schooling. She quickly advances through the ranks in tournaments, but breaks away from her family to focus on her own life. Her mother eventually realizes that Phiona has a chance to excel and teams up with Katende to help her fulfill her extraordinary potential, escape a life of poverty and save her family
Cast: David Oyelowo, Lupita Nyong’o, Madina Nalwanga
Director: Mira Nair
Screenplay by: William Wheeler
Based on the book by: Tim Crothers