10-year-old Phiona Mutesi (Madina Nalwanga) and her family have struggled for most of her life. Growing up in the slums of Katwe in Kampala, Uganda, she and her closest brother, Mugabi “Brian” (Martin Kabanza), don’t go to school, but instead spend their days selling corn on the streets so that they can contribute to the family’s income and help keep a roof over everyone’s heads. Phiona envies the children who are able to go to school, but Nakku “Harriet” (Lupita Nyong’o), Phiona’s mother, is raising four children alone, following the death of her husband and her oldest son. Though she would love for her children to have a better life, the demands of day-to-day survival don’t leave much room for dreaming, at least not for her.
Brian disappears every afternoon and when Phiona makes up her mind to follow him, she discovers the chess club run by Robert Katande (David Oyelowo), the engineer turned volunteer soccer and chess coach. An orphan, Robert doesn’t just understand chess, but he also has an intimate understanding of the the economic struggles of Phiona’s family and his other students. He doesn’t treat the children as lumps of clay to be molded, or broken items which must be mended; they are not projects but people whom he treats with compassion and respect.
Unfortunately, when Robert organizes matches for his pupils to compete with other, more affluent, it becomes quite clear that skill aside, Phiona and the children of the slums must content with arrogant pretension and classism. The privileged, even as they deny, prefer to stand with their feet firmly on the necks of the marginalized, and we see no exception here. As Robert fights behind the scenes for his players to have a seat at the table, Phiona and her friends Benjamin (Ethan Nazario Lubega) and Ivan (Ronald Ssemaganda) play games of chess for respect, for glory, and eventually, for sponsorships.
Phiona’s mother is fearful, at first that Phiona and Brian’s dreams of being chess champions are pipe dreams, and then later that burgeoning success will cause them to turn their backs on their family, their values, and maybe even their their village. But Harriet’s fear of losing her children isn’t greater than the fear that they will be struggling financially for the rest of their lives, and when she sees their undeniable skill, she doesn’t allow her fears to poison their joy. Though the struggles of Phiona and Brian’s family are never put on hold as they train, the empathy of their coach helps them to persevere. In Queen of Katwe, we get an inspirational and uplifting story about determination, talent, and how it truly takes a village to raise a child and nurture their talents. We get no White saviours here, only a decent man who wants to give back to children like he once was, a mother willing to sacrifice anything, even her pride, for the happiness and success of her children, and a community coming together to support small children in a big dream. There is no tragedy of poor Africans who “need” Western intervention, only a triumphant tale of a young girl’s success within, because of, and with the support of her community and her country.
As we follow Phiona’s journey over several years, we see her grow not only as a chess player, but as a sister, a daughter, and a more self-confident person. Beautiful, moving, and overflowing with colour, culture, and the beauty of Uganda, Queen of Katwe also features a lovely score and excellent original music from various African artists. Based on the biographical novel by Tim Crothers, Queen of Katwe is enjoyable family film is rich in so many way. It doesn’t just showcase destitute Africans who need Western intervention to survive, but struggling communities that are stronger together. Her community, while poor, is rich in family, and the place Phiona initially wanted to escape from proves itself to be as worthy of her respect as the far-off lands that glitter and shine. Rather than tear down Ugandan culture, as so many films set around African protagonists do, we see it uplifted as these children chase their dreams without ever forsaking their roots.
I give this one 5 stars.