Queen of Katwe review
Most people don’t see it, but opportunity is all around them. Life can be hard and everyone has certain priorities over others. In most cases, they’ve have to set aside their dreams in order to get through one day or another. Ones location is a big factor. Today’s subject happens to be set in Uganda. While I’ve never visited the country, I’ve seen plenty of news stories referring to it’s problems of homelessness, poverty, and a high number of people with AIDS or are HIV positive. Glancing at a CNN coverage of their shelter, you would think that hope wouldn’t be within the mindset of those people. But as I’ve said, opportunity can come from anywhere.
Missionary groups have been sent around the world to make life better for those in third world countries, especially for the children. This has ranged from schooling programs to religious groups to even hobbyists. The subject of today’s movie was influenced by chess. In my review for Pawn Sacrifice, I’ve made it clear that I’ve never played it nor do I have any plans to learn in the future. But if this teenager can learn it with expert skill in Queen of Katwe, then I guess anything is possible.
In 2007, in the town of Kampala, Uganda, in a slum called Katwe, wee meet our young woman Phiona Mutesi (played by Madina Nalwanga) who helps make a living for her single mother Harriet (played by Lupita Nyong’o) by selling corn on the street for passing cars. She and her mother make so little that they cannot even afford to send their children to school. From what we learn, her older sister night is escaping her poor life by being with the wrong guy, and their father died early from AIDS.
Things change for Phiona when she stumbles across a missionary Robert Katende (played by David Oyelowo) who is teaching several kids how to play chess. Despite not being able to read, Phiona takes to the game very well and manages to beat the best players in the group. Robert, who is in between jobs in engineering, gets the group into a prep school match where the kids see a world that they have never dream of. Though Phiona would love to go here, her mother affirms they can’t afford it and is too proud to accept charity from Robert. As Phiona becomes better at the game, she gains a spot on the Uganda team for the Grandmasters match in Russia. Will she find a way out of her poverty?
Queen of Katwe seems like your typical sports story, but I would count this more as a family drama then anything. Sure, there is a lot of scenes involving the chess matches in the wealthier parts of Uganda and Syria, but the theme of this story seems to be about finding hope. The focus of this story is on Phiona, Harriet, and Robert’s view of finding a better life, but each have unique perspectives.
What helps is that all of these actors are phenomenal. Director Mira Nair has a way of making her characters completely real with an understanding that their views are based on how they’ve seen life. I hope this director lands more work after this. The camera work is also fantastic mixing of the bright African colors against the muted polluted environment.
What prevents this from being one of the best is the editing in the second half. It seems that after the chess match in Russia, it feels like the movie can’t make up it’s mind on what to keep in focus and tries to throw a lot of the elements from before in order to wrap everything up.
I’ll give this four chess queen pieces out of five. While this could have been a major movie of the year, it’s nice to see that Disney is not afraid to take a chance on a deeper story. Not only does it risk by having it set in a darker Uganda, but it makes a bigger risk by making it optimistic. This could have come off as preachy, but it feels genuine and did put a smile on my face. This is a winning game.