We’ve seen it time and time again, a poor prodigy overcoming all odds to succeed with the help of a mentor. I have a problem with overly emotional and inspirational movies as they tend to focus on that and ignore so many other aspects of the movie (same with comedies), Queen of Katwe however does not fall into that category, it transcends the mundane with its rich, practical portrayal of a person who learns not to be defined by just her roots. Prevously, we have had movies about African stories but one thing they all seem to have in common is a White Saviour or Perpetrator, this is another aspect that makes this movie standout.
Newcomer Madina Nalwanga plays real-life underprivileged Ugandan girl – Phiona Mutesi, who struggles to stand out despite the obvious circumstances that surrounds her. She lives in a tin shack, part of a rural town called Katwe with her fearless mother, Harriet (Lupita Nyong’o), her older sister, and her two younger brothers. The kids don’t go to school as Harriet needs them to sell corn to pay the rent and, hopefully, have something to eat. She is introduced to the world of chess by local sports coach Robert Katende (David Oyelowo), Phiona is shown to have a well of untapped potential, propelling her to both national and international competitions.
Kudos to the Director, Mira Nair. I don’t really know her (except for 2002’s Hysterical Blindness), she manages to make chess so interesting, we all know it could be a very cerebral game but she finds ways to make each match as exciting as any soccer or basketball game. If you ask me, chess would be one of the least sport i would want to see in a movie. She also went all in, in depicting Phiona’s environment and Katwe as a whole. In my opinion however, the characters are the major attraction in this movie. Lupita keeps reminding us of how she has taken Hollywood by storm and that she would be indeed here for a long while. As Harriett, Lupita steals the show with her command performance as a mother struggling to take care of her children in the best way she can. Using Lupita and David is a smart move for Disney as a marketing strategy for Queen of Katwe, they are recognized faces in Hollywood with strong African roots. Madina and the other kids however are the star of this movie, they were a joy to watch and they gave an effortless performance. It was a ‘no-dulling’ moment with them. Madina Nalwanga is a fresh face with loads of talent who like Lupita and the young Quvenzhane Wallis (Beasts of the Southern Wild) would soon become a force to reckon with. Her performance was heartwrenching deserving of several rounds of applause, she also makes excellent use of facial expressions and body language.
Mr. Katende, solidly played by David Oyelowo, is audacious. He goes all in for his kids. Though filled with baggage of his own, with a wife and a child to fend for, and hoping to land that big engineering job he studied for in college. His intercession brims with so much optimism. But unlike the usual college “football coaches” who tell parents of the riches their ward could have, he preaches self-actualization.
With striking cinematography, Queen of Katwe is a real movie, with real people, real drama, real issues, and a real sense of environment. It’s aided by local soundtracks from our very own Davido, Mc Galaxy and P-Square as well as other popular African Acts. Despite being a Disney film, it isn’t afraid to shy away from the harsher truths of living in the slums and also does not give an ounce of hint that it is a Hollywood movie. Queen of Katwe embodies strong themes such as Family, Feminism, Poverty, Identity to mention a few and it does so with no holds barred.
This movie isn’t necessarily life-changing, it was long and predictable, one full of clichés, but it was effectively done and I would see it at every opportunity i get till I am probably tired of seeing Lupita forcefully shake her tiny waist.