Mira Nair’s Queen of Katwe has heart and soul. This is (unfortunately) not a political film, though it had the potential to be one, but effectively brings to its audience Phiona, a child prodigy who has strategy running in her blood. This dormant skill slowly but surely takes leaps and then helps her emerge as one of the most talented chess players in Uganda for a generation.
Newcomer Madina Nalwanga plays the formidable Phiona, while David Oyelowo plays Robert Katende, a missionary and unemployed engineer whose life is dedicated to helping his town’s children with soccer and chess. He spends his time training kids in both sports, while he often puts the soccer shoes on himself cause that pays for things. Lupita Nyong’o is a recently widowed mother of four. She is feisty, extremely principled and the most commanding presence in the film. While the film centres around her chess prodigy daughter Phiona, Lupita plays Nakku Harriet with an earthy grace and quiet resilience. I constantly waited for her scenes in the film.
I will refrain from commenting on the authenticity of Nair’s depiction of the small township of Katwe in Uganda. I have never travelled nor been to that part of the world (unfortunately), but not once did I feel that the film attempted glossing things over, comparing this Western POV to the ‘other’ approach or any form of condescension. In that, credit also goes to screenwriter William Wheeler, who carefully navigated the essence of the film in his writing.
The story begins with Phiona’s early initiation to chess. As a girl and someone who comes from dire poverty, she needs to prove herself to fit in with the ‘boys’ who know how to play the game. Katende spots her genius early and in many ways walks her through her training and eventual emergence as one of the most talented chess players in Uganda. He puts the money together so his trainees (he loving calls them the Pioneers) can make it to the prestigious regional challenge at King’s College in Kampala. He even pushes the National Chess Federation to support Phiona to travel to Moscow for the Grand Masters. His wife Sarah, played stoically by Esther Tebandeke, is his rock and supports her husband wholeheartedly. The most telling of her utter humanity is when Katende confesses to her that he has refused a long awaited engineering job at a big company. She turns around and tells him that this is what she expected of him and that her family’s place and work is with the children of Katwe.
While Phiona blossoms into the brilliant chess strategist that she is, her mother struggles to support five hungry mouths. Nakku’s livelihood is supported by the re-sale of maize, that she gets at discounted prices from a local wholesaler. But no matter her troubles, she always keeps her head held high and never once compromises on her honour. Even when her older daughter Night is entrapped by a local goonish character named Theo, she keeps her focus and doesn’t let life and its trials stir her. I have to say that I haven’t seen so many audience responses to a character in a long time. From ‘Go girl!’ to ‘Mothers are mothers,’ and ‘Nakku you rock,’ I lost count of how many times the audience spoke to Nakku’s innate strength. When she ventures out to sell the only prized piece of clothing she possesses, the cloth merchant immediately makes a move. It was as if the boos from the audience prevented him from violating her consent.
Set in the heart of an impoverished, yet alive with life town in Uganda, Queen of Katwe speaks to resilience, the human spirit and the perils of losing one’s home in dire poverty. It speaks to the value of a cup of porridge you get when you show up for your usual chess trials every day, and where each other’s humanity means far more than the count of coins in your pocket. For all the benefits of living in the safety and insulation of Canada, I wish I could partake in that celebration of life.
When Phiona brings home the national championship and is declared queen by her fellow neighbours, I teared up reminiscing the last time I felt such joy celebrating with my community and them in turn celebration for me. I have to say that had it not been a female filmmaker of South Asian origin, this film would have been crafted quite differently. Bravo Mira Nair!
Queen of Katwe is now playing in theatres.