When I first saw the trailer, I was so moved by it that I actually teared up. Well, the film proved to live up to its preview, it’s the kind of feel-good, inspiring film that will make you want to get up and cheer.
The story follows its protagonist Phiona Mutesi (newcomer Madina Nalwanga), a young girl growing up in the slums of Uganda called Katwe, hence the name. She’s shown helping her single mother do house chores and sells food, that is until one fateful day when she’s introduced to the game of chess. It turns out she’s naturally gifted in the game, and under the tutelage and encouragement of Robert Katende (David Oyelowo), a missionary with Sports Outreach Institute who organized the chess games with the kids from the slums.
Director Mira Nair collaborated again with the writer of The Reluctant Fundamentalist William Wheeler, which peppered the script with humor as well as poignant drama. It’s perhaps one of the most diverse Disney film ever featuring mostly people of color (in fact the White actors barely got any speaking roles) The kids in the chess games are apparently comprised a mixture of South African and Ugandan youth, and they’re simply adorable! The interactions between Phiona and the other kids are funny and heartwarming, they definitely adds so much charm to the film.
The film also didn’t shy away from showing the harsh life conditions that Phiona’s mother Nakku Harriet (Lupita Nyong’o) and her baby brother had to go through, including a flood that washed away their makeshift home. This film admirably highlights the strength of women, especially in Nakku who endured so much but remained principled and refused to take shortcuts to an easy life. The touching mother/daughter story makes this film so much more than about an unlikely chess champion.
In the end Phiona prevailed against all odds, and became Woman Candidate Master after her extraordinary performances at World Chess Olympiads. As with many based-on-a-true-story films, it’s bound to be predictable and even formulaic, but yet there’s so much heart in the story to overcome it.
Nalwanga had never acted before and it shows at times, but she’s got screen presence and natural charm. Having two of the best actors working today, Oyelowo and Nyong’o, their excellent performances certainly elevated the film. Mira Nair certainly has a gift for storytelling, as I was completely engrossed in the film despite its rather long running time. All the more proof that we need more women filmmakers telling stories about women. I also love the vibrant color of the film and the fact that it’s filmed on location in Uganda, it certainly makes the film feels authentic. Oh, and you’ve got to wait for the end credit sequence, it will definitely make your eyes swell up and your heart soars.
Have you seen ‘Queen of Katwe’? Well what did you think?