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Friday, April 19, 2024

The underdog story: Queen of Katwe


Lupita Nyong’o, David Oyelowo, cast of child actors shine in this uplifting movie

Queen of Katwe is based on the true story of Phiona Mutesi’s life, a young girl growing up in the Ugandan slum of Katwe who discovers she has an extraordinary talent for the game of chess.

The film begins with Phiona (Madina Nalwanga) returning home from a long day of selling maize. She stops to longingly watch a group of children playing chess and is invited in by a man named Robert Katende (David Oyelowo), affectionately referred to as “Coach.” The other children mock her, telling her that she smells, to which she responds by throwing some punches. “Ah, a fighter,” says Coach. “Welcome this is a place for fighters!”

We learn that Coach had at first started a missionary sports program for the children in Katwe, but soon realized that many of them are forbidden to play by their parents because they may break a bone and become unable to work. When Coach suggests chess instead, the kids are initially not interested, until he says, “Too bad… I thought you’d like beating city boys”.

The film does an excellent job of addressing barriers to success that the characters must face, such as poverty, corruption and classism. Coach is at first refused when he attempts to enroll The Pioneers, as he calls the group of kids, in their first tournament, which takes place at a prestigious private school.

After he finally succeeds in raising enough money to enter, he must then delicately deal with the children’s shocked reactions to being outside of the slum for the first time. The first night at the tournament, all the children sleep tightly packed together on the floor, although there are beds available for each of them.

Phiona, who we soon learn possesses a natural ability for chess, wins the tournament and is awarded a medal for “Best in Boys.” Everything seems to be going well, with Phiona’s constant wins and traveling for tournaments, but tragedy strikes again and again in the form of a storm that destroys her home and a nearly-fatal accident for her brother Brian.

Lupita Nyong’o gives a powerful performance as Phiona’s widowed mother, who struggles to take care of Phiona and her three siblings. She is the ever-concerned and stern mother who initially doesn’t approve of this “gambling game” and is torn between giving Phiona a chance at greatness or keeping her “safe” in the slums. When Phiona gets to travel and compete, her mother realizes that she now longs for a different life a life which she may never have.

“You’ve shown my children paradise, and now they are like ghosts who can’t rest”, she says to Coach. He in turn believes that Phiona “shouldn’t be denied the glory of victory because she was born here,” and the two clash as the hopeful Coach sees a bright future for Phiona that her mother does not.

This beautiful movie centers on a young girl’s true story of overcoming hardship through her intelligence — as well as the support of her family, Coach and the community — and does not neglect the difficult topics of classism and poverty.

I appreciated that this film was realistic in its portrayal of poverty showing that a brilliant mind alone may not always be enough to remove oneself from hardship.

Written by: Pari Sagafi – arts@theaggie.org


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