Queen of Katwe is unlike any film Disney has ever made before. While it technically falls into the sports-drama category in a list of films that includes Remember the Titans, Miracle and McFarland USA, it’s hard to compare this to any sports film that came before it. That’s because the sport at the center of the film is chess.
Based on the rags-to-riches story of Phiona Mutesi, Queen of Katwe begins in the impoverished Ugandan town where Phiona’s single mom struggles to support her children, unable to afford an education for them. When educated Robert Katende begins spending his free time teaching chess to kids in the village, he discovers that Phiona is a prodigy and has to fight to get her the opportunity to compete on a national and global level. Capable of seeing many moves ahead, chess not only teaches Phiona how to get ahead in the game but also in life.
Filmed entirely on location in Uganda and South Africa, Queen of Katwe is full of authenticity. Directed by Mira Nair and with a cast of largely unknown actors from that region, this film is a gift to the world. Seeing the challenges the people of Katwe face will make you be forever grateful for the privileges and rights we have. But it will also expose a beautiful culture that is rarely represented on film.
All of the actors give marvelous performances and because they are mostly unknown, the family at the center of the film feels real. Lupita Nyong’o plays Phiona’s mom, an amazing portrayal of a woman doing everything in her power to provide for her family despite the odds being stacked against her. David Oyelowo joins her as the man who teaches Phiona how to play chess. But it is young Madina Nalwanga’s performance as Phiona that truly anchors the film, an impressive feat for a first-time film actress. Her performance is so arresting that I would not be surprised if the Academy takes notice.
Being a Disney film, I was surprised by how real the film is allowed to get. It doesn’t hide the fact that things like crime, rape and prostitution exist in Katwe, but handles them in such a way that kids won’t notice or ask questions. And while there are tears along the way, in true Disney fashion you will leave the theater so elated that you will want to experience it again and again.
I feel like Queen of Katwe fills a cinematic void for a number of reasons. Not only does it represent a part of the world that doesn’t get enough exposure in film, but also focuses on a young, oppressed woman of color who changes her world. It’s almost a counter movement to the complaints lodged against what the American Girl brand has become. A truly inspiring story with wonderful performances, authentic cultural representation, and a powerful message. I can’t say enough good things about Queen of Katwe, which has become one of my favorite films of 2016.
I give Queen of Katwe 5 out of 5 snaps of excitement