QUEEN OF KATWE. Uganda, 2016. Starring Madina Nalwanga, David Oyelowo, Lupita Nyong'o, Martin Kabanza, Taryn Kyazw, Esther Tabanddeke. Directed by Mira Nair. 124 minutes. Rated PG (Mild themes)
It is important to realise immediately Katwe is a section of Kampala, capital of Uganda.It is a poor area, a slum area, makeshift homes, drains, much dirt and squalor, people surviving in menial jobs and at local markets. This is the setting for this rather inspirational drama, one of those stories about an unlikely prodigy, a seeming underdog, who trains, experiences conflicts, but succeeds in the area of their prowess.
In this case, it is chess.
The film is based on a true story, opening in 2011 with a chess tournament and going back to 2007 to show the discovery of Phiona and her talent for chess and the training and experiences building up to the tournament. In fact, the film does go on to some succeeding years with Phiona continuing her success – and, in a delightful and very pleasing way, the final credits having the cast of the film stand in front of the camera, one by one, with the actual character that each represented coming to stand beside them.
David Oyelowo (A United Kingdom, Martin Luther King in Selma) plays a sports coach, a former soccer player, who is employed by a ministry that has an outreach for poorer children in sport. He also has a talent for chess and invites a number of children from Katwe to a hall where they can learn to play chess, to use their minds and intelligence, to plan, to be courageous in fighting play, to learn lessons that will carry over into their lives. One day, following her brother, Phiona turns up, is ridiculed by the other students because she stinks, but she stays, defiant, washes at home and returns the next day and learns the basics.
Because of the warmth of the story and David Oyelowo’s playing as the coach, Robert Katende, the film has a very strong spirit. The other contribution, apart from Manding Nalwanga as Phiona, a 10-year-old girl with determination, is that of Lupita Nyong’s as Phiona’s mother, Harriet, a widow with several children, trying to cope by selling fish and corn at the market, a woman trying to manage and exerting strong discipline – although her oldest daughter goes off with one of the locals and, temporally, lives in some luxury.
The film is directed by Indian director Mira Nair, director of such interesting films as Salaam Bombay, Mississippi Marsala, Monsoon Wedding, who has lived in Uganda for many years and knows her way around the city and capitalises with the use of actual locations.
Robert is able to raise money by playing football for the cash deposit for his group of children to play in an upper class college in Kampala, Phiona shocking the champion by beating him, the locals at home getting a great boost in spirit from her victory. This is something of the pattern that continues for some years, Robert’s sympathetic wife teaching Phiona to read so that she can study chess books, the discovery that she can see in her mind the consequences of a move eight moves ahead. Her chess education includes a triumphant visit to a competition in Sudan and a less favourable competition in Moscow.
At this pre-adolescent age, Phiona is not always able to deal with the consequences of success, seeing how the other half live, looking at her own conditions. But, she takes the matter in hand, supported by Robert and his wife, Robert also able to speak frankly and encouragingly with Phiona’s mother.
Obviously, the film is going to have a happy ending, Phiona is not yet 20 and articles and books have been written about her as the child chess prodigy – and the credit information supplies what has happened to all the characters, reminding audiences that if opportunities arise and are taken, success is possible.
Other chess films of interest include The Search for Bobby Fisher but, a film that parallels the story here, is the New Zealand true story film, The Dark Horse, with Cliff Curtis teaching children to play competitive chess.
Disney Released December 1st
Peter Malone MSC is an Associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting.