Saturday movie review: Queen of Katwe

I don't know how to play chess. Disney's QUEEN OF KATWE is about chess. Despite my lack of knowledge of the game, I found the film intriguing — even suspenseful at times — but most of all inspiring. Because QUEEN OF KATWE is about much more than excelling at a board game.

Queen of Katwe

QUEEN OF KATWE tells the true tale of a 10-year-old girl living in Katwe (pronounced CAT wee or CAT way), a slum in Kampala, Uganda. Phiona Mutesi (newcomer Madina Nalwanga) and her family — mother Harriet (Lupita Nyong'o), older sister Night (Taryn Kayze) and two younger brothers) survive by selling vegetables in the market place. It's an impoverished, meager existence with little possibility of the future being any better.

One day while peddling her goods, Phiona stumbles upon a group of school children gathered to practice their chess skills under the direction of Robert Katande (David Oyelowo), a former soccer player turned missionary. Katande dedicates his time to teaching the unfortunate children the game of strategic thinking and risk taking in hopes they'll make use of such skills in life, make more of their lives than they currently accept as their futures.

Phiona eventually becomes part of the group and shows surprising skill at the game. Katande enthusiastically supports the girl. He teaches her to trust her gut, how to read, and encourages her to progress up through the ranks of chess championships — and the previously unimaginable opportunities her potential affords her. All despite her mother's initial lack of support and enthusiasm for the game, Katande, and the possibility Phiona might leave the family in pursuit of her goals.


The film — though, at 124 minutes, a bit longer than I thought necessary — turned out to be quite suspenseful, mostly as Phiona made her way through the ranks of chess superstars. Of course viewers will assume she must become a champion (or why make the film) but it was still nerve wracking at times to watch the competitions. And amusing to watch some of her fellow chess teammates make their moves, for better or for worse.

Katande proved a true champion in his determination to make chess tournaments open to slum-dwelling kiddos, not just the rich kids with high-price educations and backgrounds. Kudos to the real-life Katande for his work for all such children, not just Phiona.

Nalwanga may be new to acting, but she shines brightly throughout the film. She makes for a spunky, spirited, determined (yet occasionally insecure) young gal who eventually realizes her worth and won't take "no" for an answer. There's a period in the film when Phiona gets a bit too full of herself because of her accomplishments, and Nalwanga perfectly nails the attitude. Her lesson in humility was played equally well. I have a feeling Nalwanga just might find acting success nearly equal to that of the lovely Lupita Nyong'o who plays her mother (and was amazing in 12 YEARS A SLAVE).

QUEEN OF KATWE is rated PG but — and this is the grandma in me speaking — I'm compelled to mention that the storyline includes a fair bit related to the fact that Phiona's sister, Night, earns money and a time of easy living in return for her services to a man with big bucks. Harriet (Phiona and Night's mother) clearly disapproves, which is a good point for younger viewers, but it just might be a conversation some aren't yet ready to have with their youngsters. And there's the fact Night, the prodigal daughter, gets pregnant, too.

Also, several scenes are subtitled, which can leave viewers who can't yet read quickly in the dark at times. (And I don't recommend adults reading each subtitle to kids in the theater... because that's rude to those seated nearby.)

On the whole, though, QUEEN OF KATWE is a great lesson in determination and grabbing hold of opportunity — while never forgetting those you love and where you came from.

One of the super cool things about QUEEN OF KATWE for me was watching the credits... because it included footage of the actors and their real-life counterparts. I always enjoy those sorts of things that bring the reality into films based on real events and people.

The lovely and inspirational Alicia Keys talks about her song Back to Life being featured in QUEEN OF KATWE:

Disney's QUEEN OF KATWE (rated PG for "thematic elements, an accident scene and some suggestive material") opened yesterday in select theaters and will open in theaters across the country next Friday, September 23, 2016. Find out more by following the film on Facebook and Twitter.

Disclosure: I was invited to a free screening of this film; opinions are my own.