QUEEN OF KATWE – Review by Susan Granger
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.