“Queen of Katwe”: Check and Mate

In sixth period study hall, I mustered up the courage to pose a question to my otherwise silent peers. Trying to ignore the thirty-four eyes set on me, I asked, “How many of you know how to play chess?” Of the seventeen people in the room, five slowly raised their hands. That’s 29%. If I should expect similar results from the entire student body, a handy dandy proportion would lead me to believe that only 329 of 1,120 UDers know a queen from a pawn. With Upper Dublin being the academically accomplished school it is, this surprises me. Because even in the slums of Katwe, Uganda, a certain queen is making her move — and her name is Phiona Mutesi.

As soon as Queen of Katwe begins, we’re introduced to a teenage girl in a red dress, standing opposite a man about twenty years her senior. Their body language tells us that the stakes are high. The girl nervously asks a question, much like I did in class:

“Am I ready?”

We’re not allowed this information just yet; if we were, the movie would end right then and there. Thus, our attention is focused elsewhere, and now we see a frenetic, dirty marketplace in 2008 with various sellers running to and fro. And there is Phiona, a girl of ten or eleven, trying to steady a basket of maize on her head. With a shack-like living space and a constant shortage of food, it is clear that her family is struggling to keep itself alive. She and her older sister, Night, spend their days seeking income for their corn, though often unsuccessfully. To be frank, Phiona’s life is bleak. However, as in any good plot, something is bound to change. This “something” just happens to be a roomful of children, which Phiona happens upon during a daily stroll through the frenzied streets. Despite being teased  for her smell, she sticks around, curious as to what this game is that everyone is playing. There she meets Mr. Katende, a man who earns a living organizing activities for Katwe’s underprivileged children and who introduces her to the game of chess. Before long, she is an exceptional player, perhaps the group’s strongest. More importantly, the game serves as a distraction from the struggles she is forced to confront at home. After four long years of work, sorrow, triumph, and downfall, Phiona shapes herself into an international chess phenomenon, easily surpassing the best of the best.

Queen of Katwe is a well-rounded, well-developed film. (Perhaps a little too developed, as I began to feel the presence of time, but I digress.) The acting is convincing, the dialogue thoughtful, and the story powerful and evocative. One must not expect novelty from it, however; this is, in construct, a Disney film, a tale of rags to riches, of hardship to happily ever after. Although I am in no way bothered by this, I cannot pass it off as an unmatched work. I can use unmatched only to describe the performances of David Oyelowo (Robert Katende), Lupita Nyong’o (Nakku Harriet), and Madina Nalwanga (Phiona Mutesi), all of whom treated their roles as if they were not roles, but plain realities. I entered the theater unaware that Phiona’s story was a true one, but because of the actors’ grace and honesty, I could sense it with all my being. (I suspect an Oscar or two is not out of reach.) For these reasons, I believe that the film deserves an A-. It checked off all the boxes for what a real movie should be: smart, captivating, and capable of igniting self and world discovery.

Compared to Phiona’s struggle for success and the guts it took to get her there, my experience in the classroom was minor. But now our stories are intertwined; I thought of her as those seventeen faces stared blankly back at me. She continues to inspire, years later and all the way across the world. And as her story gets out, perhaps that 29% will steadily rise, just as she did, just as queens do.


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