Published by the Students of Johns Hopkins since 1896
April 16, 2024

Queen of Katwe refreshes familiar narrative

By ANNE HOLLMULLER | October 13, 2016

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GAGE SKIDMORE/CC-BY-SA-2.0 Acclaimed actress Lupita Nyong’o, who portrays Phiona’s mother, spoke at the 2016 San Diego ComicCon.

Queen of Katwe (2016) is a recent film based on the life of Phiona Mutesi (Madina Nalwanga), a young chess champion from Uganda who was raised in the slums of Kampala. The film features critically lauded actors Lupita Nyong’o and David Oyelowo and boasts a winning performance from newcomer Madina Nalwanga.

Directed by Mira Nair, the film focuses on Phiona’s struggles and successes as she works to help her family find a better life. This fall release from Disney is a well-acted, family-friendly film that is colorful and lively.

The story is likely similar to one that you’ve heard before, but it is bolstered by impressive acting and effective storytelling. Through the power of chess, Phiona moves from the slums of Katwe to a new home for both herself and her family.

Nyong’o plays Phiona’s courageous single mother, Nakku Harriet, who supports and encourages her daughter to achieve her dreams, all the while worrying that her child may be dreaming too big. Oyelowo plays Phiona’s supportive coach, Robert Katende, who offers the children of Katwe the opportunity to learn a game of strategy that ultimately changes Phiona’s life.

Nyong’o is luminous as the mother, a resilient figure raising four children while undergoing great hardship and watching over a precocious daughter whose dreams extend beyond the reach of Katwe.

Oyelowo shines as the compassionate chess teacher, who instructs the children and helps to guide the talented and intelligent Phiona.

Newcomer Madina Nalwanga is wonderful as the budding prodigy whose thoughtful nature and deep ambition help her to achieve her dreams and empower her family.

Katwe, in focusing on the skills and achievements of a young woman from Uganda, is refreshingly new take on the genre. Nalwanga conveys an intelligent and ambitious young woman who discovers that winning is more complicated than it might seem and that calling checkmate doesn’t always bring the glory and happiness it promises.

Sometimes Phiona’s success pulls her away from the people she loves the most, and her victories can seem empty at times. It is in this aspect that Queen of Katwe complicates the narrative of the inspirational sports biography, and elevates the film beyond mere feel-good fun.

Director Mira Nair, who brings nuance and restraint to Phiona’s struggle to find a place in the world, ably handles the powerful story driving Queen of Katwe. Phiona and her family live in a poverty that is neither valorized nor pitiable, and the life and color of Katwe permeates every moment of the film.

The family undergoes significant difficulties like the pregnancy of Phiona’s teenage sister, an accident that injures her younger brother and the ravages of the heavy rain season, to name a few. When Phiona is able to buy a new house for her family, with a roof and surrounded by greenery, the audience shares in their joy and elation.

The conflicts in the film, chiefly between Phiona and those who do not believe in her, feel real and are resolved easily. The ongoing debate between Nakku Harriet and Robert Katende over Phiona’s dream to leave Katwe seems to be the central argument of the film.

Oyelowo’s Katende, awed by Phiona’s talent, wants to see her compete and achieve at international chess competitions where she may find fame.

Nakku Harriet, in the immaculate hands of Nyong’o, worries for her young daughter as she goes abroad to Sudan and Russia to compete, fearing that her daughter will, after having tasted the world, be unable to return to life in Katwe.

This tension between Phiona’s ambition and maturity plays out between the two adults, and comes to life in Madina Nalwanga’s skillful performance of the younger Harriet.

Queen of Katwe centers not only on Phiona Mutesi, but also on the people who support her in her achievements. Phiona’s family members, the slum children with whom she learned the game and her coach and his family, form a loving network that allows her to learn and grow over the course of the film. When the people of Katwe rejoice in Phiona’s victories, it is because so many have been a part of her quest for greatness.

Queen of Katwe is one of the extremely small number of films that feature both an all-black cast and a female director of color. For such a film to be made and released, as well as to be supported by a major studio such as Disney, is remarkable.

That the film is also beautifully executed, supremely well acted and tells a vibrant story in a nuanced manner is deserving of even more praise. Ultimately, Queen of Katwe is an excellent and inspiring biographical film about the life of an extraordinary young chess champion.


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