Review: Queen of Katwe

The story of Phiona Mutesi is a tale of ambition, triumph, strength and overcoming adversity. Director Mira Nair and screenwriter William Wheeler saw fit to adapt the highly acclaimed article and book written by Tim Crothers to share with the world, which needs a little inspiration at the moment.

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Image by Disney

Phiona’s story spans several years, starting from when she and her brothers and sister were selling corn on the streets of Katwe to help her mother Nakku Harriet stay in their small run-down apartment. The inciting incident of the picture is when she follows her brother Brian to a chess club and meets Robert Katende, a man who sets up the pieces to change her life forever.

As Phiona’s knack for the game of chess grows, a hidden talent emerges. Over time Robert sees in her the makings of a genuine prodigy for the game, perhaps even a grandmaster and Phiona believes that chess can be the means to attain something greater than what her family has ever known, but she wrestles with insecurities as every stage of the game gets bigger and she is reminded that she is only a small piece from a small town.

Queen of Katwe is genuinely inspiring film that I encourage audiences to see. It’s a classic story about an underdog from a small town that can make a big impact, it’s a story about family, a story about sacrifice; it tugs at you a bit with the overarching message but there are many technical and physical traits of the film worthy of admiration.

I’d like to start off by saying that the acting of Queen of Katwe is rock solid. The three leading performers, David Oyelowo, Lupita Nyong’o and newcomer Madina Nalwanga, are all razor sharp with their performances.

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Image by Disney

Watching Oyelowo perform, I could definitely tell that he was in his element as this presence for motivation and ambition, and his performance as Robert Katende is equal parts funny, staunch and authentic as this youth chess coach who wants to provide for his family. I believe his high moment was the scene were Roberts young chess team, The Pioneers, were about to walk out of their first chess tournament against educated schoolchildren and they felt intimidated by the setting, their opponents and Robert perked them up about a story about a hungry dog being bested by a cat that was running for its life and told them the Pioneers are running/fighting for their lives. That was a great moment for Oyelowo.

Lupita Nyong’o is genuine star and her performance as the proud mother Harriet is practically effortless. I believe single parents, particularly single mothers, out there providing for their children in these difficult times will see her character as a source of inspiration and she once again delivers an amazing acting performance. Though she doesn’t get enough screen time as Nalwanga or Oyelowo, she certainly makes her presence felt; after her family was kicked out of their apartment because her son Brian was in an accident and had to go to the hospital, she sets up a makeshift home on the streets and runs into her estranged daughter Night, who gives Phiona money since Harriet is too proud to take it, but Harriet accepts when Phiona coaxes her into accepting; I thought that was a profound moment of strength demonstrated by Nyong’o’s nuanced performance.

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Image by Disney

Madina Nalwanga’s debut was a success. Her portrayal as “Queen Phiona” is empathetic, encouraging and she delivered a lot of promise in her performance of a very strong and courageous young woman. I think Nalwanga’s strongest moments were when Phiona was playing chess in her first tournaments, particularly against the boy who was practically looking down at her because of where she came from but in the end, she got the last laugh.

I liked all of the actors in this film; Martin Kabanza, Taryn Kyaze, Ronald Ssemaganda, Nikita Waligwa, Ivan Jacobo, Nicolas Levesque, Ethan Nazario Lubega, Esther Tebandeke, everyone was certainly a unique change of pace.

Wheeler’s screenplay certainly had its moments but I believe its greatest credit was doing justice by Phiona and her family. What I took away from this film’s story is the message that probably spurred Phiona onto her path to becoming a champion: the small one can become the big one.

Sean Bobbitt’s cinematography was rather playful but straightforward, Barry Alexander Brown’s editing was on point throughout, Stephanie Carroll’s production design wreaked of authenticity, I can’t say much about Alex Heffes’ score but I will say that the technical elements of Queen of Katwe were rather impressive.

Mira Nair did a fine job at making this film as poignant, piercing and meticulous as possible. This film had high moments, moments where it felt as though it was lagging and dragging but I will remember Queen of Katwe because all of the pieces and players on the board came together in a winning formation.

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