Katwe, Uganda, is one of the poorest places on Earth. Its slums are filled with walls made from cardboard and hanging fabric scraps. There are no roofs and when the rains come, the few possessions anyone does have are likely to be washed away in mud.
Too poor to go to school, children like Phiona Mutesi and her brother Brian sell maize in the streets to support their families. When a sports ministry program comes to town, coach Robert Katende quickly learns that many of the children will not play soccer — they cannot afford to be injured and out of work.
So he introduces them to chess.
“Queen of Katwe” comes from the ESPN Films division of Disney and is based on a 2013 profile by Tim Crothers in ESPN magazine and his subsequent book. While chess may not seem to be as cinematically exciting as some other sports, “Searching for Bobby Fischer” (1993) proved it could successfully anchor a film.
Thanks to her dedicated and charismatic coach, Phiona quickly absorbs the game even though she cannot read. David Oyelowo (“Selma”) is perfection as the charismatic coach, committed to helping his “pioneers” achieve their full potential.
Phiona’s mother is exquisitely played by Academy Award winner Lupita Nyong’o (“Twelve Years a Slave”). Fiercely protective and suspicious of her daughter’s new pastime, Nyong’o’s wonderfully expressive face reflects her entire life story. Her scenes with Oyelowo are an acting master class.
As Phiona, Madina Nalwanga has the right blend of world-weariness and pride. We see her age from 9 to 15 in the film and the young actress conveys the growing confidence as she masters the game and begins to see the world beyond her village. When Phiona laments that God is angry with her family, her sister replies, “I don’t think God cares about us one way or the other.” But her coach is not willing to let her accept her lot in life: “Sometimes the place you are used to is not the place you belong.”
In spite of the relentless poverty, the film has its lighter moments. Katende radiates sunshine and the pioneers are adorable as they invade the elite world of chess. These are children who are so used to sleeping on the floor that they do so even when they are given beds. Once Phiona begins to travel to chess competitions, she dreads returning home.
To her credit and Disney’s, director Mira Nair (“Monsoon Wedding” and “The Namesake”) does not gloss over this tale or Disney-fy it. Although we have a happy ending, Nair makes sure we realize these are rare in Katwe.
The film’s delightful closing credits show each actor next to his/her real-life counterpart, with an update as to what has happened since the book. This is a thoughtful way to showcase the real-life people of Katwe who take such pride in this tale.
Like “Slumdog Millionaire,” this film provides a glimpse of how millions of children in the world live. No matter how it does at the box office, it should be required viewing in classrooms, Scout meetings and Sunday schools.
The young people in the preview audience were captivated for two hours. Were they immersed in this heartwarming story or stunned into silence to see children their age living in unspeakable conditions?
Either way, “Queen of Katwe” is a story they will not soon forget.