A Ugandan girl sees her world rapidly change after being introduced to the competitive game of chess. A feel-good movie with outstanding performances by Lupita Nyong'o and David Oyelowo.
Making a chess movie is a tricky move. Your first stumbling block is that, of all sports, this must be one of the most uncinematic – as well as the most baffling for the novice. Even those familiar with the queen’s gambit need a little while to take a look at a board in an apparently tense setup and assess its import for both players.
Plus, on the big screen at least, the dramatis personae are rarely appealing. Traditionally, movie chess is the recourse of the brilliant but socially awkward male, who uses it to communicate when more common methods prove elusive. Such folk can be a struggle to root for, their victories and defeats wrapped up in psychological trauma and solitary childhoods. A case in point premiered at Toronto two years ago: Pawn Sacrifice, a woozily-boring Bobby Fischer biopic with Tobey Maguire sweating over the bishops.
But The Queen of Katwe has a trump card in its disarming heroine. It is easy to cheerlead for Phiona Mutesi (Madina Nalwanga), a pre-teen living in a Ugandan shanty town, whose life prospects seem to pick up considerably after she finds she has an unexpected knack for seeing eight moves ahead.
She’s coached by Robert Katende (David Oyelowo), a local minister who runs a kids club when he’s not being the world’s most charming amateur footballer and loving husband. But it’s one of the great joys of the film that he never feels repellently saintly. Indeed as the closing credits indicate, in their charming intro to the real-life characters, the actual man is yet more endlessly generous.
Anyway, the glass ceilings against which shock prodigy must crack her skull are more numerous than those facing the usual aspirant grandmaster. How will she muster the money to compete in a local schools competition – especially given she’s not actually in school? How will she juggle her studies with looking after her kid brother and flogging bread in the market? And how many people really make it when they can neither read nor – after another brother’s accident cleans them out of rent money – have a roof over their head?
Phiona’s other trouble is her mother: a fiercely protective single parent with understandable concerns about how her daughter will cope if and when disappointment comes. She’s played, against type, by Lupita Nyong’o, giving rippling pride and strictness to her first non-CGI role since 12 Years a Slave. The logic of making the character quite so bristly is vindicated in the surprisingly-moving climax.
In fact for what is, in essence, a by-numbers Disney sports flick, there’s endless freshness and vivacity to Mira Nair’s picture – her best in years. The Slumdog settings are eye-poppingly well shot by Sean Bobbitt, and though it’s hard to attest to their authenticity, urban Africa is rarely this intimately drawn. Conflict with snooty public school kids might be a bit blunt, but it’s played for compassionate comedy, and The Queen of Katwe remains quite a challenging prospect for a mainstream mass market audience.
There’s one too many bits of basic chess lingo co-opted into feelgood life mottos, yet the game itself often feels happily incidental to the narrative of the film – so you can understand the need to knit it in somehow. What’s instead key is the earnestness and the exuberance, executed with a conviction that makes this that rare thing: a kids hobby movie where something really is at stake.
Catherine Shoard, The Guardian, 11th September 2016.
Films that inspire and warm our hearts are often dismissed as manipulative, treacly or sentimental. Even the word “inspirational” has gotten a bad rap. But some stories are simply that: inspiring and heartwarming. “Queen of Katwe,” which chronicles the true story of a young female Ugandan chess champion, is just such a tale.
And Mira Nair, who deftly captured the visual aesthetic and rhythms of foreign cultures in films like “Monsoon Wedding,” “Salaam Bombay!” and “Mississippi Masala,” is probably the ideal match of filmmaker to material. The director, known for her vibrantly beautiful films, has had a home in Uganda for nearly three decades, and she is also the founder of a film school there. She knows Uganda, and it shows.
The nation’s urban life is vividly evoked in the tale of 9-year old Phiona Mutesi (Madina Nalwanga), a girl from the slums of Kampala, who becomes a national chess champion. When we meet her, she is living on a subsistence level with her strong-willed mother Harriet (Lupita Nyong’o) and three siblings.
One day her brother Brian (Martin Kabanza) happens upon a church-sponsored chess program run by Robert Katende (David Oyelowo). She follows her brother and is immediately drawn to the game, with its focus on reasoning and innovation, and the spirit of heady competition. Phiona’s keen intelligence and fierce determination render her a natural, and her aptitude for the game is astounding. Katende, trained as a civil engineer, sees Phiona’s potential and fights for her inclusion in tournaments, as well as for his other team members.
Despite being illiterate, Phiona rises rapidly through the ranks, playing against privileged and educated young people who seem to take their good fortune for granted. Within two years she becomes Uganda’s junior champion, and learns to read.
Let’s be clear: Little about chess makes it a riveting spectator sport. Scenes focused on the checkered game board won’t make pulses race, but the expressive face of young Nalwanga and her descriptive body language makes the tale compelling.
In her first acting role, Nalwanga is terrific. She deftly conveys Phiona’s self-possession, intelligence and growing sense that anything is possible if you work hard enough. Discovered at a dance academy, the 14-year-old Nalwanga was a bit older than the character, but she inhabits the role with striking dignity and grace.
The story is based on the eponymous book by Tim Crothers, with a screenplay by William Wheeler (“The Reluctant Fundamentalist”). The Afrocentric soundtrack and score by Alex Heffes (“Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom”), utilizing native Ugandan instruments, is delightfully infectious. Cinematographer Sean Bobbitt’s hand-held camera brings the sprawling city of Kampala to vivid, color-drenched life: Textures feel palpable. Busy streets throb with activity.
What stands out powerfully in this engaging film is that it is a Hollywood production starring only black actors. Since it takes place in Africa, this shouldn’t be noteworthy, but given the minuscule percentage of people of color working in major studio films, it’s a point worth noting and celebrating.
“Queen of Katwe” is foremost a coming-of-age tale, unspooling in a place vastly different than what most American audiences can imagine. Yet, Phiona’s desire to distinguish herself, to see the world and to transcend her humble origins, has universal resonance.
Her abilities and growing bond with the kindly Katende mystify her hardworking mother Harriet. The woman’s concerns are simple: How can a game and the encouragement of a stranger be more important than helping her mother feed the family? Sheer survival has always been her focus. Nyong’o is convincing in the part; her delicate stature belies her gritty resolve.
At one point, Harriet forbids her daughter from playing chess and going to tournaments. She fears that if her daughter glimpses greater possibilities in life she might never be content to return to Kampala, and will fail to fit in anywhere. Nyong’o embodies this maternal struggle poignantly; it no doubt helps that the Oscar-winner has long known director Nair. Raised in Kenya, Nyong’o graduated from Nair’s Ugandan school Maisha Film Lab and later interned at her production company.
A classically trained actor of Nigerian-British descent, Oyelowo is perfectly cast as Katende, Phiona’s mentor. Audiences will find themselves rooting for this kindhearted man to find happiness as much as for Phiona. All this speaks to Oyelowo’s authentic portrayal. There doesn’t seem anything Oyelowo can’t do. He can play Katende, Martin Luther King in “Selma,” a Civil War corporal in “Lincoln” or a preacher in “The Help” with equal passion and credibility.
While the key roles belong to Nalwanga, Oyelowo and Nyong’o, the non-professional ensemble cast is also wonderful, adding to the sense of rich authenticity in “Queen of Katwe.” Watching Phiona prevail and achieve champion status, we can’t help but have lumps in our throats. Her perseverance and eventual empowerment speak poignantly to audiences.
The view of Africa often portrayed in movies is that of a continent crippled by famine, genocide, poverty and disease. This humanistic tale, helmed by a masterful filmmaker, offers a potent — and yes, inspirational — story of triumph against huge odds.
Claudia Puig, The Wrap, 10th September 2016.
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Total Number of Responses: 77
Film Score (0-5): 4.79
145 of us watched Queen of Katwe, with 77 feeling moved to give feedback on the film about which 16 people used the same word - "What a moving story, a wonderful film from a great director." "Absolutely brilliant. Wonderful acting and filming." "Wonderful! Uplifting, moving, tragic, heartwarming. Full of amazing characters! Loved it." "What a wonderful film. The acting was brilliant. A climb out of poverty."
Almost as many people mentioned their hearts being warmed, broken, or uplifted throughout. "Such a potent story - wrapped in a very smooth-flowing production. Gave tugs to the heart strings and smiles to the face." "Heartwarming. All very predictable but fun to see it play out." "Stunning. From the heartbreak of the motor bike accident to the joy of a dream coming true. Acting was outstanding - understated and emotive." "Heartwarming and charming story, totally improbable were it not based on fact. Strong performances from leading cast members especially David Oyelowo."
The cinematography and visuals drew a large number of comments. "Very entertaining and touching. Good photography and colours." "Great location work giving the impression of life in the area." "Terrific film. Truly inspirational. It had everything humour, sadness, conveyed against the stark reality of the contrasting lifestyles. Children's performances were amazing. The colours were so vibrant. Uganda brought to life." "A joyful story, well told by great actors. I know nothing of chess, but loved the scenes of Africa and the widest smiles - terrific!" "Lovely strong story. Excellent photography and acting."
Seeing the actors next to their real-world counterparts also affected a number of people. "Wonderful film - a feel good film that is profound. Fabulous ending with the actors and their real people!" "A wonderful story - superb child actors and so good to see the real people with the actors at the end. Truly heartwarming." "Very enjoyable - the ending where they showed the real people with the actors was very emotive."
"What a wonderful, wonderful film. Thank you film soc."
"Rather apprehensive when Disney logo flashed up, but pleasantly surprised by what followed. All the ingredients of a feel good film but with the context of slum life in Uganda not glossed over. An amazing true story and how nice to see the actors alongside those they portrayed at the end. Another good choice. Thanks."
"A joyful film - revealing the importance of dedicated teachers who recognise talent and facilitate improvement. A fierce mother with principles. Really enjoyed it."
"Amazing! What a story!"
"Sentimental, predictable, enjoyable."
"Really fabulously acted and very uplifting film."
"Beautifully filmed and acted."
"Amazing film! How to cope with adversity."
"Very good, a film with heart and charm."
"An inspiration to us all - great film. Very good acting, lovely portrayal of Uganda."
"Enjoyed it. Fantastic filming. Found the soundtrack difficult to follow. Must visit Uganda."
"Would be an incredible story if it were not true!"
"Just utterly delightful."
"Totally immersed - forgot I was watching a Disney film! But now wonder how much was Disney-fied!"
"A wonderful uplifting and inspiring film. Great acting."
"On a cold, dark night in February, some sunshine. Sometimes I am critical of the choice of film, but not so tonight. 10/10 for the film, 10/10 for GFS!"
"In the midst of all the dire poverty and disasters befalling the family, there was hope followed by salvation."
"A really wonderful film about Africa!! Very feel-good!"
"Very uplifting and full of colour and hope. From the truly dire poverty her determination and that of the coach lifted not only her family up but also the whole community!"
"Wonderful, brought back wonderful memories. The Ugandan people are so spirited the film portrayed this very well I thought."
"Very inspiring film. A great advert for Chess and the Ugandan people. I was completely involved from start to finish."
"A beautiful film. As someone who has played in many junior chess tournaments in my youth, I can definitely related to this. Loved it!"
"Makes coming to the film club worthwhile!"
"Truly wonderfully acted film with glorious storyline."
"Heartwarming. Full of great characters."
"Loved the colours and the dancing - super cinematography. But I thought the plot predictable and a bit too good to be true. Would have liked to know the story on which it is based. I found the dialogue very difficult to understand."
"Absolutely brilliant. Wonderful acting. Great scenes of Ugandan life."
"Just a great story so well told and acted."
"Heartwarming. A real African vibe."
"I wish I could play chess. It would have made an excellent film even better."
"Not a film I would've caught at cinema and a must watch/view. Thank you."
"A tremendous effort went into the making of this film."
"An enjoyable film 'en passant'."
"Can a film be too 'feel good'? It does feel a little as if, in this tale of remarkable triumph against considerable adversity, Phiona is unassailable in her rise and that obstacles are brushed aside a trifle easily but it is hard not to cheer anyway. A lovely film, almost entirely without the political, social or racial cant or worthy patronising one might expect from such a project under the auspices of the House of Mouse, the performances are charming, particularly the luminous Lupita Nyong'o, the cinematography warm and unobtrusive and the finale immensely satisfying."
"While the storytelling may be schematic and predictable but that doesn't make it any less rousing. Good to see that unlike some other Hollywood films set in Africa, a white hero doesn't save the day on behalf of poor East Africans. Instead, the hero is one of their own. It's a heart warmer with and Nalwanga's portrayal of Phiona charming, resolute and witty from the first as she faces resistance asserting her independence simply because she's a girl. It's a markedly mature performance. Great cinematic landscapes vibrate with documentary-like clarity. At times, you forget this isn't cinema verité.
It's pretty hard to bring striking images to a chess movie, and the final tournament scenes are detailed enough to keep interest in the game with a climax happening via black and white squares. The tension of whatever outcome there is didn't depend on knowing about chess moves, via some strong facial expressions. Liked some of the metaphors; chess as life is the obvious; if you can fight and see 8 moves ahead you can be a winner. Whatever setbacks Phiona faces at the chess board or at home, we know that not too much harm will befall her. She will always find the right move in the end. The little pawn with nothing becomes a great queen. Fortunately not too much predictable mush in a film with cheerfulness and energy not unlike Slumdog Millionaire. Resilient kids, a ferocious but tender mother from Lupita Nyong'o as well as an impressive Oyelowo subtle and persistent."
"The Queen of Katwe was an exemplary film of opening up communication channels through competition for countries that our caught up in some political strife or poverty. The film allowed to open the eyes and ears of the world so that changes can be made to improve the quality of life. This time the game is chess instead of football or rugby, and so on. The performance of the actors was naturally portrayed to the culture bordering on being a documentary than a screenplay. Interesting use and to see the Ugandan landscape. Phiona was blessed to have meet Robert Katende who encouraged her talent to play chess with a clever strategic mindset and to inspire her not to give up so easily in life. I hope this film motivates other up and coming talent and it would be wonderful for us all to have the support of a superb mentor like Robert Katende. Credit is owed as much to Robert as it is to Phiona and this was definitely portrayed in the film, The Queen of Katwe."
"One assumes that it is easier for a “feelgood” film to score well, so let’s put the storyline to one side. I am biased, having travelled widely in Uganda, including on overloaded minibuses, but this film really captures a sense of place. Like Capernaum, it feels like a realistic portrayal of the slums – the contrast between the piles of rubbish and the washing/cleaning/sweeping rituals rings true (and I don’t really believe the implied lack of personal hygiene in the slums) – and we are also treated to the contrasts of Africa with the achingly beautiful lake scenes. I would love to know how these real-world scenes are filmed – this isn’t Elstree Studios with everything under control…
Great performances; I always like the portrayal of persistence that overcomes conservative and bureaucratic opposition. A reminder of the untapped potential of poor people all over the world – just like the UK 100 years ago, but tougher because we got there first."
"What a beautiful, uplifting and smile making film. I loved the exuberance of the actors contrasted with the poverty of the slums. I have now been to 3 GFS films, and have really really enjoyed the all, although I would not have chosen to see them at any other time."