QUEEN OF KATWE – Review by Susan Granger

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Based on a true story, this film chronicles how talented Phiona Mutesi (Madina Nalwanga) from the poverty-stricken streets of Katwe, a township that’s south of Kampala, the capital of Uganda, became a world-class chess champion. Her journey begins when resilient nine year-old Phiona meets Robert Katende (David Oyelowo), who runs a sports outreach program of the local church’s youth ministry, teaching scrappy slum kids, struggling to survive, how to play chess – bribing them with a free cup of porridge. Read on…

Like Phiona, he’s suffered deprivation and hardship. Because of class discrimination, even with an engineering degree, Katende cannot get a proper, full-time job without family connections.

In chess, Phiona is told, “The small one can become the big one.”

Phiona’s enthusiasm for the new game infuriates her hard-working, widowed mother, Nakku Harriet (Lupita Nyong’o), whose income depends on Phiona and her brother Brian (Martin Kabanza) selling maize in the marketplace.

But when compassionate Katende realizes that illiterate Phiona is truly a prodigy, he finds ways to help her not only to learn to read but also overcome the many obstacles thrown in her path.

Based on Tim Crothers’s 2012 non-fiction book, William Wheeler’s melodramatic, triumph-of-the-underdog script follows a predictably biographical, sports story formula – with far too many platitudes.

With extraordinary sensitivity, Indian-American Mira Nair (“Mississippi Masala,” “Monsoon Wedding”) depicts the harsh, almost unimaginable squalor in which the family lives, often without food, shelter, schooling or medical care, and directs Ugandan newcomer Madina Nalwanga with utmost delicacy.

Her debut performance is richly enhanced by the supporting cast, headed by David Oyelowo (“Selma”) and Lupita Nyong’o (Oscar-winner for “12 Years a Slave”).

Great credit should also go to cinematographer Sean Bobbitt for capturing the authentic African shantytown atmosphere, along with production designer Stephanie Carroll, costume designer Mobotaji Dawodu and editor Barry Alexander Brown.

And the charming closing credits feature the actors standing alongside their real-life counterparts.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Queen of Katwe” is an inspirational 7, concluding that being a winner can be a mixed blessing.

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Susan Granger

Susan Granger is a product of Hollywood. Her natural father, S. Sylvan Simon, was a director and producer at R.K.O., M.G.M. and Columbia Pictures; her adoptive father, Armand Deutsch, produced movies at M.G.M. As a child, Susan appeared in movies with Abbott & Costello, Red Skelton, Lucille Ball, Margaret O'Brien and Lassie. She attended Mills College in California, studying journalism with Pierre Salinger, and graduated from the University of Pennsylvania, Phi Beta Kappa, with highest honors in journalism. During her adult life, Susan has been on radio and television as an anchorwoman and movie/drama critic. Her newspaper reviews have been syndicated around the world, and she has appeared on American Movie Classics cable television. In addition, her celebrity interviews and articles have been published in REDBOOK, PLAYBOY, FAMILY CIRCLE, COSMOPOLITAN, WORKING WOMAN and THE NEW YORK TIMES, as well as in PARIS MATCH, ELLE, HELLO, CARIBBEAN WORLD, ISLAND LIFE, MACO DESTINATIONS, NEWS LIMITED NEWSPAPERS (Australia), UK DAILY MAIL, UK SUNDAY MIRROR, DS (France), LA REPUBBLICA (Italy), BUNTE (Germany), VIP TRAVELLER (Krisworld) and many other international publications through SSG Syndicate. Susan also lectures on the "Magic and Mythology of Hollywood" and "Don't Take It Personally: Conquering Criticism and other Survival Skills," originally published on tape by Dove Audio.