Queen of Katwe is the type of story that we need every once in a while to remind us of the wonderful things that really do happen in life. This is a vibrant, joyous story of a girl who well exceeds her potential.
Chess may not seem like an exciting sport to some, but Queen of Katwe will make you want to dust off those pieces, take out your board and try it out yourself. In a wonderful rags to riches tale, Queen of Katwe will leave you feeling uplifted and inspired.
The film is set in the eponymous slums of Katwe, where young chess prodigy Phiona (Madina Malwanga) lives with her brothers and mother (Lupita Nyong’o). After being invited into the local chess club ‘The Pioneers’ led by coach Robert Katende (David Oyelowo), Phiona discovers that she is a natural at the competitive and highly tactical game.
Coach Robert quickly recognises that the young chess prodigy has an exceptional ability to plan and predict at least eight moves ahead of her opponents, setting her apart from the other players. The team compete at a local, regional, and for some, national and world level. For Phiona, chess is all about becoming a master, but also holds hopes and dreams of a better life. Her sceptical mother worries of the affect that chess will have on her life, scared that it will change her attitudes and humility. However, with the offer of an education for her children she accepts her daughter’s passion and soon gets swept up in the excitement of the competition.
As is typical with Disney, even a story that starts in the slums has a glimmer of hope. Despite their situation, the soundtrack is upbeat and the colours are popping. Director Mira Nair also fills the narrative with humour, with genuinely hilarious moments throughout. It’s a reminder that often the happiest of people are the ones who have the very least in life.
At first it’s difficult to imagine that such tension could be created by a game of chess, but even when you aren’t particularly familiar with the game and tactics, it’s still nail biting stuff in the moment. Nair has made it so easy to identify with Phiona and her burning passion to succeed. As we see Phiona’s transition in both age and ability, her character transformation is evident also. She isn’t one dimensional or unbeatable, she acquires a bad attitude and even lacks sportsmanship, and Nalwanga performs this superbly.
All of the child actors in ‘The Pioneers’ fantastically capture the energy and enthusiasm which possesses young people, mainly because this is genuine, as this is the pivotal first film role for many of the child actors. Lupita Nyong’o is another standout performance, who convincingly plays the mother figure who constantly worries for her children’s wellbeing. With her break out performance in 12 Years a Slave winning her an Oscar in 2014, she certainly set the standard high for herself, but since then has proved to be versatile and well suited to her roles since.
However, the film would not quite have the magic spark that it does were it not for David Oyelowo’s performance as the wonderful Robert Katende. ‘Coach’ is a father figure to Phiona and her brother who gives them hopes and opportunities which they may not have received otherwise. He is persistent and passionate and cares about nothing more than giving these children the best shot at life. He is just charming; a source of hope in an otherwise dim life
Despite some occasional spelling-it-out-for-the-audience moments, Queen of Katwe really is a sweet story of success. It is Disney doing what it does best- reminding us that rags to riches tales can happen, and really happen, as all of the characters as well as the story in this film are based on real people. It guarantees a few tears and a whole lot of joy.
Queen of Katwe (2016) directed by Mira Nair, is being shown as part of the 2016 BFI London Film Festival. Further information about the festival including screening times and ticket information can be found here.