Queen of Katwe

 

                Chess movies have several inherent difficulties:  how much do you assume about the chess knowledge of the average viewer?  How much do you get into strategy and tactics?  And how do you show somebody being really smart?

                Director Mira Nair not only gives us a glimpse into the world of competitive chess, she does so by first getting us interested in the world of Phiona Mutesi (newcomer Madina Nalwanga), a Ugandan girl born into a crowded slum to a destitute single Mother, Harriet (Lupita Nyong’o), who not only had other children to raise, she was much preoccupied with just trying to feed her family.  Phiona, with her little brother, goes to the market every day to buy corn from the farmers, then try to sell it on the streets to passers-by, hopefully the ones in the automobiles.  As you might expect, the profit margin is very small, and the little family struggles just to feed itself and pay the rent on their ramshackle hut.  There’s no time for school, and besides, it costs money they don’t have.  Phiona, along with all her siblings, seems doomed to grow up uneducated and unskilled, and likely doomed to the same poverty which enveloped her at birth.

                One day Phiona, noticing that her little brother was slipping away on a regular basis, decides to follow him, and to her surprise, she discovers that he is going to play chess.  It seems that a local government administrator, who himself had a very difficult childhood, has taken it upon himself to try to help some disadvantaged kids.  Not only does Robert Katende (David Oyelowo) teach chess, he imparts life lessons to these slum kids, because he knows how severely “at risk” they are.  When Phiona shows up at the door of his modest little game room, he invites her in, and invites her to begin learning.

                It does not take long for Phiona to develop a love for the game.  Not only is she bright, and competitive, she discovers that she possesses a rare capacity to anticipate sequences, and plan strategy in her mind, as much as eight moves ahead.  Robert, of course, quickly recognizes her raw talent, and does his best to encourage her to expand her horizons.  But when he tries to give her chess books to read, he discovers she is illiterate.  Robert’s wife, Sara (Esther Tebandeke), supportive of Robert’s commendable community work, then decides that she’s willing to teach Phiona to read, just so she can navigate the chess books.

                What follows is a rather astounding progression, as Phiona first wins the championship of their little club, but also in their entire city, and eventually in Kampala, at a posh private school where the students are egregiously patronizing of the ragged players from the outlying slums.  Robert turns down his dream job, in civil engineering, in order to continue to work with this protégées, and eventually bring them to the African championship in Sudan.

                It’s not an easy journey.  Phiona is continually dragged into difficulties at home, as her little family continues to suffer greatly from their abject poverty:  once they’re evicted, once her little brother is injured and there’s no money to pay for medical care.  Her older sister runs with the wrong crowd and becomes pregnant.  Her mother can’t afford the paraffin to keep Phiona’s candle burning at night to study the chess books.  Her mother is tempted to think that all this about playing chess is a silly distraction that puts unrealistic dreams into her daughter’s head.  And Phiona herself doesn’t always adjust well when she returns from a tournament trip where she has seen how “the other half lives.”

                Of course by this time, we viewers are shamelessly rooting for her to succeed, not only for her own sake, but to help deliver the whole family from the misery of their deprivations.  The performances here are spectacular.  The viewer is transported to an unfamiliar world suffocating with desperation and yet suffused with this noble hope, carried by the sheer personal dignity of Robert Katende.  It’s heartwarming, and compelling, and worth immersing yourself for a couple of hours, even if you aren’t into chess.  You’ll still appreciate the human triumph.

 

Dr. Ronald P. Salfen, DFW Film Critics Association