“Queen Of Katwe is my love letter to Africa. This film is very much, left & center, is the UrbanWorld, except set in Africa, my other home in Kampala, Uganda. So welcome to Queen of Katwe” - Mira Nair, at the 20th Urban World Film Festival 2016, in NYC.
“Queen of Katwe,” was the opening night film at the Urbanworld Film Festival 2016 in NYC. The film is directed by Mira Nair and based on Tim Crothers’s book. Produced by Disney and ESPN the fact that the game of chess is a sport is part of what makes this film exciting to watch. All of the elements to make a “classic” stitch the film together include the unlikely coach who helps bring victory — bring those big lumps to throats which always produce tears to eyes. “Queen of Katwe” is a double hankie film.
Katwe is a poor township outside of Kampala, the Ugandan capital, and it is where we meet our chess playing heroine, Phiona Mutesi, an unlikely chess prodigy played to perfection by newcomer Madina Nalwanga. Nothing about Phiona’s life is easy. She is one of three siblings under the watchful, loving but exhausted mother, Nakku Harriet (Lupita Nyong’o), who has tragically lost her husband. On the brink of disaster, day by day, the family barely scratches by, selling food on the streets. There is simply never enough of money, the drive in Uganda, here, shows the countries stark inequalities. The class division is plainly evident in who has the basics such as shelter, education, transportation and medical treatment.
Is it no wonder Nakku rarely smiles? Her eldest daughter, Night (Taryn Kyaze), is a rare beauty and if she was strolling in the streets of Italy, would no doubt, end up on the fashion runways of the world. In Katwe the quickest offer for upward mobility for the young teenager is in the form of a motorcycle riding rat of a man. It’s left to the middle children, Phiona and her younger brother, Brian (Martin Kabanza), to try to bring money to the family. It’s a hard life then chess enters the children’s world delivered by the kind and sly-as- a-fox
Robert Katende (David Oyelowo), who teaches the game to Katwe’s children as part of a youth ministry. Robert understands the lives of the children around him, his own youth scarred by poverty and war. Despite the odds he earned an engineering degree but lacks the necessary connections to obtain a job. No matter he smiles and keeps the children motivated. When Mr. Oyelowo tells you that you can do something great, well you believe it which makes his coaching skills such a joy to watch. He is a fast-talker and uses that skill to enter his rag-tag students into a chess tournament held at a very snooty private school. All cliches aside these young middle class opponents are reluctant to shake the hands of the kids from Katwe.
Standing next to the nourished and well-dressed schoolboys — the look on their faces when they are beaten by a girl — a poor girl — has the same impact of the iconic character, Rocky, running up the stairs of the Philadelphia museum.
Director Nair shows more than her skill — which is impressive — but it’s the love for the country and Phiona’s story that sets the film apart. Visually it’s rich. Story structure is solid with a few twists that separates it from other, superficially similar movies.
Nair knows where she is going and understands the particulars of the culture and the place. It’s one of the many reasons she is one of the greats, as evident in past films like “Mississippi Masala” and “Monsoon Wedding.”
This however is based on a real young woman, Phiona, whose circumstances are brutal, and the film never minimizes the harrowing choices and painful limitations placed on women like Harriet and Night.
Built on realism, Nair’s film does not suggest that winning chess matches is an instant, Disney- magical solution to the world’s injustice. To quote coach Robert, “Hope is not a tactic,” and for him he did not allow despair to move his around the chess board of life without a firm strategy to“check mate.”
“Queen of Katwe” is a strong family film with a global appeal that many stories lack. The performance of newcomer Ms. Nalwanga is breathtaking. Nair makes the basic parts of life exciting and watching Phiona use chess to rise out of the ashes is as exciting as any soccer game or boxing match.
“Queen of Katwe” is rated PG (Parental guidance suggested).
Opening Friday, September 30
Director Mira Nair. Stars Madina Nalwanga, David Oyelowo, Lupita Nyong'o, Martin Kabanza, Taryn Kyaze