By Ali Bush ‘19
An illiterate girl living in an impoverished Ugandan community becomes a world-renowned chess player in Mira Nair’s new film “Queen of Katwe” (2016). The Disney motion picture is an adapts the story of real life chess champion Phiona Mutesi, a chess grandmaster and pride of the Uganda.
The film follows Phiona’s rise to fame and the struggles she faces along the way in a nuanced and touching manner. Lupita Nyong’o (Phiona’s resilient single mother) and David Oyelowo (Phiona’s encouraging coach) give enchanting performances. But the film’s success hinges on an astounding performance of newcomer Medina
Malwanga, who portrays Phiona with impressive grace and intellectual prowess. Although the film follows the cookie cutter structure of sports feel- good movie, its subject is authentic and its slew of new, charismatic actors makes the film irresistibly uplifting.
The film introduces us to Phiona, her mother (Nyong’o), and her three siblings living in a hut in the slums of Katwe, where they work selling corn and barely making enough money to get by. Director Mira Nair neither romanticized nor pities their community. Nair displays it with beauty and color. When Phiona comes across a children’s chess club run by a local Christian ministry, she enters because she is hungry, but stays then later returns because the game of chess captivates her. Phiona’s coach (Oyelowo) immediately recognizes her talent and encourages her continue practicing despite her economic situation and overwhelming self-doubt. Soon we see Phiona and her rag tag group of chess pals defeat opponents of all nationalities, ages and classes. As one small boy tells Phiona, “in chess, the small one can become the big one,” referring to the actual chess pieces, but soon we see Phiona realize that her extraordinary talent can pull her family from poverty.
The general subject of the film is extremely refreshing, as it is set in Africa and features an all-black cast, yet doesn’t revolve around war or civil unrest. Furthermore, films chronicling the intellectual achievements of a young woman of color are far and few between, and this production truly reflects the success the film industry is finding in representing less visible stories. Phiona’s portrayal is complex and thoughtful, and provides inspiration for young girls everywhere.
Being a 10-year-old girl in a competitive setting places extreme pressure on Phiona. We see her doubt her right to be competing with extremely intelligent people and even uncertainty about her own talents. Fortunately, Phiona overcomes her insecurities and isolation. Her story teaches her audience not to be ashamed of their talents and accept their victories with pride and gratitude.
Although the film seems somewhat predictable and mushy at times, it is after all, a Disney production, and it contains lessons that can be beneficial for a wide array of audiences. As the credits roll, we see real-life characters meet their actor equivalents, and are reminded that this incredible underdog story is true. “Queen of Katwe” will leave your heart feeling fuzzy and tears in your eyes.