In 2011, writer Tim Crothers published the article “Game of Her Life” in ESPN The Magazine. The story focused on Ugandan teenager Phiona Mutesi who was to travel to Russia to compete in the chess Olympiad. Crothers subsequently wrote a book about Phiona who is currently pursuing becoming a chess Grand Master. Her story is the basis of “Queen of Katwe,” released by Walt Disney Studios (part of ESPN’s parent company).
The film opens with the Ugandan 2011 chess championship but quickly takes the audience back to 2007, before 11 year old Phiona (Madina Nalwanga) had ever heard of chess. Phiona’s father died, leaving her mother Harriet (Lupita Nyong’o) to raise four children in Katwe, a slum on the outskirts of Uganda’s capital, Kampala.
Phiona and her brother Brian (Martin Kabanza) sell food in the streets. When Brian sneaks away one day, Phiona follows, curious as to his destination. She learns Brian is attending chess classes organized by Coach Robert Katende (David Oyelowo) of Sports Outreach. The team was started after local boys told Katende they couldn’t play soccer because if they were injured, their families couldn’t afford medical help.
Katende spies Phiona watching the lessons and invites her to play. After a rough start, Phiona shows an aptitude for chess and joins Katende’s “Pioneers” as they compete against students from private schools.
On their quest, Phiona and her teammates must overcome many man-made obstacles: no regular meals; no running water, plumbing or electricity; no public education available; and shanty housing which is rented. Phiona’s older sister Night (Taryn Kyaze) hopes to escape their poverty by dating a man who offers money. Her widowed mother is advised to find a “sugar daddy,” but resists.
Through chess, Katende shows his students they have choices. He overcame tough circumstances to become the top civil engineering student in his class. The Pioneers face hurdles but still have curiosity, intelligence and determination on their side. As the Sports Outreach van proclaims, “Challenges are not a curse.”
The film follows Phiona and the Pioneers as they strengthen their skills and self-confidence. “Firsts” for the team include plane trips, overnight stays in rooms with beds, and tasting ketchup. When the children experience self-doubt, Katende erases it with a mix of humor and stories. The Katwe children face prejudice from well-to-do competitors. And, as a girl, Phiona must overcome gender bias and stereotypes.
The controversy surrounding the newly released “Birth of a Nation” has had some entertainment writers wondering where Oscar voters will find ethnically diverse nominees for next February’s awards. They need only consider the cast of “Queen of Katwe.” From newcomer Madina Nalwanga who portrays Phiona from age 11 to 15, to Oyelowo who the Academy unfortunately overlooked in 2014’s “Selma,” the performers deliver strong portrayals. Oyelowo’s Katende is perfectly complemented by Esther Tebandeke as his supportive school teacher wife, Sara. Lupita Nyong’o brings a fierce strength of character and tough love to her role as Phiona’s single mother. And Ethan Nazario Lubega charms as Benjamin, a Pioneer who cries with anger when he first loses a game to a Phiona but then becomes one of her loyal supporters. (In a nice touch, the actual people being portrayed appear with the on-screen stars at the end of the film.)
“Queen of Katwe” focuses not only on Phiona’s challenges and triumphs but also on those of her family, Katende, and his family. The brightly colored and beautifully patterned costumes by Mobolaji Dawodu reflect the determined spirit of all the characters. William Wheeler’s script brings audiences unfamiliar with Africa into the middle of daily life in Uganda. As star Oyelowo states, “As a Nigerian, I’m frustrated by how little we see of the real face of Africa in Western movies…I know this continent is filled with tremendous stories of hope, triumph, love and joy.” Directed by Mira Nair (herself a resident of Kampala), “Queen of Katwe” shows dignity and respect for people who are economically impoverished but who have a strong will to succeed.