by Cassie Ochoa
What does it take to become a world chess master? Queen of Katwe says, it not only takes a very clever young girl, but a very talented and supportive team behind her. Phiona Mutesi (Madina Nalwanga) ends up crashing the lessons of Robert Katende (David Oyelowo), a gentleman who’s dedicated his time to teaching the kids of Katwe how to play chess. Phiona quickly works her way through the ranks. And soon, Robert decides that his students are worth competing against children at other schools in Uganda. As Phiona becomes more skilled in chess, her home life with her mother, Harriet (Lupita Nyong’o), becomes strained due to financial hardship.
Queen of Katwe is a powerhouse of stellar performances. Madina Nalwanga manages to captivate, in her first role, holding her own against Lupita Nyong’o. Together, they truly show the love that their characters share, even when Phiona’s life path starts to drift away from their life in the slums. To the credit of casting director, Dinaz Stafford, the other child actors do a great job, considering most of them are not trained performers. The closing credits of the film show the main characters against their real-life inspirations. Seeing the real people alongside their fictional counterparts helps show how, they not only match physically, but also, in terms of presence.
Mira Nair (Amelia, Vanity Fair) does a flawless job depicting the area of Katwe that Phiona calls home. The colors of the world really pop, contrasting Phiona’s living situation with the more educated world she struggles to fit into. Cinematographer Sean Bobbitt (Shame, 12 Years a Slave) captures chess matches in a way that brings a cinematic quality to a game where most of the action takes place in the mind. Alongside Alex Heffes’s (The Rite, The Last King of Scotland) score, the film does a stellar job painting the portrait of Katwe as Phiona knows it.
Over the course of the narrative, the Mutesi family is forced into homelessness and near starvation, with Harriet Mutesi risking having to “get a sugar daddy”. Phiona and the rest of the Mutesi family have to deal with, not only sexism, but the struggles of poverty that aren’t seen by males in their area. This context depicts Phiona as a kid from the slums, trying to make it in a classically educated game.
Ultimately, Queen of Katwe is a perfectly pleasant film. It tells an inspirational story of a young girl’s rise using her intellect and the support of loved ones. With great performances and a moving message, this is a film that will prove to be a great benchmark for female centered cinema. Mira Nair deserves accolades for directing the film and using undiscovered talent for such a big production. It is definitely a film worth checking out, if only for the stellar visuals in a drama.