It’s not too often that a movie comes along that earns my praise without any caveats but Queen of Katwe is one of them.
Based on a true story, Queen of Katwe is about a young girl living in the slums of Uganda. When Phiona stumbles upon an out-of-work engineer teaching the local children about a strategic game called chess, she starts on a path that will change her life’s trajectory for the better.
During this introductory scene, she enters the building where chess is being played and is immediately ostracized by the other children who call her a pig and tell her she smells. Unexpectedly, she didn’t leave. She pushed back and fought back.
Are you a fighter? the teacher asks. I hope so because I need fighters.
And just like that, Phiona becomes a student of the game as her teacher, Robert Katende, recognizes her natural aptitude for the strategic thinking required for chess. His battle is to then instill the confidence in Phiona and raise the expectations of her mother, Harriet, to believe that she is destined for a life beyond the slums.
Although the movie is about a young girl from Africa living an impoverished life, I was pretty certain that my son would be able to relate because of his love for chess.
Chess is an important game in my household. My husband has been playing since he was a boy and has taught our son as well. They are both skilled in the game and welcome the challenge.
I know the game but I usually decline an invitation to play. The honest reason is that it’s too hard. It makes my brain hurt and I always lose. There are plenty of other things I’m good at but chess isn’t one of them. It’s a thinking man’s game and I don’t have the patience for it.
Phiona, on the other hand, is a natural. During one scene with her teacher, he tries to coach her and explains why one of her moves would lead her to defeat. Instead, she showed him how she envisioned the games playing out eight moves ahead. It’s then that he realizes the magnitude of the talent that would eventually lead her to become a national champion.
The teacher, Robert Katendre, is played by David Oyelowo, a British Nigerian born in England. In fact, I was shocked to hear Oyelowo’s British accent during a live broadcast Q&A after the filming with some of the cast member. He played such a convincing, unassuming African man that I couldn’t imagine he was anything else. But it was his statement during the Q&A that caught my attention.
When asked about his first impressions of the film project, he admitted he was surprised that this was a Disney film. To be more succinct, he was surprised that Disney had greenlighted a film set in Africa. About a poverty stricken girl. Who plays chess.
I can imagine the pitch for this movie being a hard sell but it’s such a remarkable story that someone at Disney must have seen the value in this film. It’s definitely not Frozen but it’s about time Disney expands beyond its nice, white, animated bubble.
Admittedly, I had heard of the film but hadn’t really explored what it was about until I was invited to the preview of the movie and read the synopsis:
“Queen of Katwe” is the colorful true story of a young girl selling corn on the streets of rural Uganda whose world rapidly changes when she is introduced to the game of chess, and, as a result of the support she receives from her family and community, is instilled with the confidence and determination she needs to pursue her dream of becoming an international chess champion.
It’s everything Disney claims it to be. It is a colorful true story. It’s an inspiring story. And it’s a story that will leave viewers with an appreciation for the culture of Africa, the game of chess, and the spirited determination of a student and her teacher.
I recommend this movie for the entire family, especially kids over the age of 8. And don’t be surprised if you’re left crying happy tears.