Tales of diamonds in the rough are as old as stories themselves, but when done well, they challenge our preconceptions and inspirationally prove anyone from anywhere is capable of anything.
“Queen of Katwe” is an exceptional diamond-in-the-rough tale based on the real-life story of Phiona Mutesi (deftly played by newcomer Madina Nalwanga), a girl from a Ugandan slum who becomes an international chess champion.
Phiona and her brother, Brian (Martin Kabanza), are introduced to the game by Robert Katende (David Oyelowo in another terrific performance), an educator who wants to bring the game of chess to the children of the Katwe slum.
The children, most of whom are too poor to attend school, enthusiastically take to the game and become quite good at it. There are some deeply satisfying scenes where the children of Katwe enter chess tournaments and proceed to beat the pants off of rich kids who haughtily look down their noses at them.
But, among all the children, it is Phiona who emerges as someone special, a player of incredible intellect and skill, made all the more impressive as an unassuming female in a strongly patriarchal African society.
“Queen of Katwe” has a strong and bold streak of feminism proudly running through it. In a lesser movie, most of the focus of the film would naturally shift to Robert and the sacrifices he makes and the positive influence he has on Phiona and the other children.
All of that is still here, but it pales in comparison to the film’s true inspirational bedrock, Phiona’s mother, Nakku Harriet, played like a force of nature by the great Lupita Nyong’o.
Nakku is fiercely protective of her children, who she is forced to raise on her own in an unforgiving environment. She is instantly suspicious of Robert and his motives as she does not want her children to be exploited or fed false hope.
Nakku is beautiful, but it is her strength that shines through as she struggles to hold her family together in the most desperate of circumstances.
“Queen of Katwe” bears the Disney brand, so it is more than suitable family entertainment and it has plenty of light, humorous moments. Even more impressive is even though it is targeted at Western family audiences, it doesn’t completely gloss over the harsh realities of a life of poverty in central Africa.
It’s no surprise a movie about strong, intelligent women should be directed by a strong, intelligent woman. Mira Nair has enjoyed a long career and is one of the few Indian women to enjoy success behind the camera in Hollywood.
She pushes all the right emotional buttons in this movie and delivers an honest, inspirational film.
“Queen of Katwe” is an exceptional movie anchored by great acting, a life-affirming story, and the proof there are diamonds hidden all around us just waiting for their chance to shine.
“Queen of Katwe” is rated PG for thematic elements, an accident scene, and some suggestive material.