Queen of Katwe
At the Cinemark
For any parent who’s looking for an inspirational poster to put on a daughter’s bedroom wall between soccer star Alex Morgan and gymnast Simone Biles, may I recommend one of Phiona Mutesi sitting at her chessboard?
Disney did not invent Phiona. She’s the real deal -- a slumdog chess champion.
Phiona grew up in the poorest slums of Uganda. Dropping out of school at age 9, she sold maize on the streets of Katwe to try to earn money for her family. One day she followed her brother to a church where kids were being taught chess by a counselor/coach.
Phiona catches on very quickly, soon checkmating the boys who had teased her when she first arrived.
And that was only the beginning, as this pawn marched down the board to get queened.
In the years ahead, during her teen years, she would become one of the first world-titled female chess players in Uganda -- and a national champion.
Her success attracted the interest of a sportswriter, Tim Crothers, whose story was immediately snatched up by Disney Studios.
The resulting movie, “Queen of Katwe” -- which fact-checkers say is quite faithful -- is a simply beautiful account of the life of Phiona Mutesi. The ensemble tale features three deeply touching performances authentically capturing the mom, the coach and the phenom herself.
If you don’t smile and cry a couple tears, you likely are a robot.
What lifts the story above the clichés of a routine sports movie is the focus on the struggles and defeats suffered by all three. The poverty in the slums of Africa is not Disneyfied.
Phiona’s career includes a trip at age 14 to the chess Olympiad in Russia where she felt humiliated and walked away from the table, resigning. She was too inexperienced for that challenge, which -- briefly -- broke her spirit.
But, back home, she lit a candle every night as she slept on dirt floors, reading chess books -- eager for another chance.
Her mom resisted and even -- at first -- resented her daughter’s success, which resulted in her living at the home of her coach for intense training. Mom, having no education, could not imagine her daughter escaping poverty by moving chess pieces.
The family is poor. There are chores to do at home.
At her most snarky moment, Phiona is the ungrateful daughter exuding adolescent attitude.
But her coach coaxes Phiona back to center through a combination of unconditional love and some tough talks about working through hardship -- and not giving up. Typical stuff, yes, but delivered in wise ways any coach who has ever rescued a sliding teen could appreciate.
The center of Phiona’s universe, however, is her mom, who exudes the indomitable spirit of Maya Angelou, as this caged bird sings even in the most hopeless of times. She’s tough on her kids, trying to lift them out of the only life she’s ever known.
The cast holds the clues that explain why this story feels so authentic: the leads are African, and the director is Indian. The supporting cast members are African as well. All are proudly sharing a part of their own life stories. The story is told through a female lens.
Played by Oscar winner Lupita Nyong'o (“12 Years a Slave”), the mom reminds us of what it means to put your child ahead of yourself. Nyongo’o was raised in Kenya.
David Oyetokunbo Oyelowo, the coach, was raised in Nigeria. He played MLK in “Selma.”
Playing Phiona is newcomer Madina Nalwanga, a teenager from a poor neighborhood in Kampala, Uganda, who has never made a movie before. She was discovered at a community dance class.
Director Mira Nair was born in India, where she distinguished herself in school and earned a full scholarship to Harvard.
With an all-black cast led by a director from India, “Queen of Katwe” becomes an ode to the unrealized potential in young girls raised in poverty throughout the world.
"Queen of Katwe" serves as a vibrant symbol of why Black Lives Matter. This film with a virtually all-black cast including children from the slums salutes the minds, the hearts and the spirit of children of color around the world.
It’s particularly heartwarming to see the nimble mind of a young girl saluted. Watching a poor, young black girl become a chess champion smashes stereotypes about age, class, race and gender.
One of the joys of the film is watching the dismayed faces of opponents as they lose to a girl they totally underestimated. Phiona learns never to tip her king too early and to always think eight moves ahead as she plots her victories.