Review: ‘Queen of Katwe’ The African Spirit Released by Disney Magic

Ben Zacuto ’19 / Emertainment Monthly Staff Writer

“If we don’t tell our own stories, no one will.” –Mira Nair, Director

The story of a young woman named Phiona Mutesi overcoming insurmountable odds in her homeland of Uganda to become a world-renowned chess champion does not sound particularly innovative or uncommon. And director Mira Nair’s Queen of Katwe is not necessarily a film that breaks the mold of clichéd biopics concerning the seemingly incredible story of an ordinary person doing extraordinary things. What makes Queen of Katwe different, however, than say other Walt Disney Pictures biopics like 2014’s Million Dollar Arm or 2016’s The Finest Hours is how truly astonishing Phiona’s story is within the rubble of Katwe, Uganda’s shanty town streets. And even more impressive is how Nair frames Phiona’s sobering story within a scrumptious, Disney package. Queen of Katwe is by no means the best film to be released this year. It may be, however, one of the most underrated surprises.

Phiona Mutesi, played wholly and truthfully by newcomer Madina Nalwanga, is a 10 year-old who sells maize to help support her single mother feed her two younger brothers and older sister within the slum of Katwe, a neighborhood (of sorts) in Kampala, Uganda. Much to her headstrong mother Harriett’s chagrin, Phiona and her brother Brian stumble upon a group of children playing and being taught chess by a man named Robert Katende. Through much strife and practice, Phiona quickly becomes that of a chess prodigy, winning national children’s and later international adult chess competitions.

David Oyelowo and Madina Nalwanga in Queen of Katwa. Photo Credit: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures.

The story is fairly by the numbers and the dialogue can be clichéd every now and again. What makes the story so entertaining, though, is how director Mira Nair frames Phiona’s story within the eyes of the participator rather than the beholder. We see Africa as Phiona sees Africa, not as an American would see Africa. So many times when watching films taking place in Africa do we view the conditions in which people live as infested, trash dumps where homes are held together with ply wood and ridged tin. Katwe is no exception to this aesthetic physically. However, emotionally, Nair and by extension Katwe is a much different Africa than we are used to. Song and dance liven the streets. Love and compassion for the smallest of life’s gifts shine through in every nook and cranny. Queen of Katwe is a film that showcases the heart and soul of Mira Nair’s Africa. For that, all of the biopic clichéd story points and dialogue can be forgiven.

Never has there been such an uplifting based in Africa than from watching Queen of Katwe. It probably would be neglectful to forget to mention the phenomenal performances given by Academy Award winning actress Lupita Nyong’o as Phiona’s stubborn mother Harriett and David Oyelowo as chess coach Robert Katende. Disney magic aside, Queen of Katwe is a film about Phiona’s spirit, Katwe’s spirit, Africa’s spirit- the human spirit.

Overall Grade: B

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