Queen of Katwe – Film Review by Frank L.
Director: Mira Nair
Writers: William Wheeler (screenplay), Tim Crothers (based on the ESPN Magazine article and book by)
Stars: Madina Nalwanga, David Oyelowo, Lupita Nyong’o
According to Wikipedia “the residential areas of Katwe have been a slum, right from when human habitation started to appear along the railway tracks leading from Kampala to Kasese in the first half of the 20th century.” It is situate about 3km from the centre of Kampala. It is where Phiona Mutesi (Madina Nalwanga) was born and brought up, along with her siblings, by her widowed mother Nakku Harriet (Lupita Nyong’O). It is a life of meagre subsistence; selling maize as street vendors is the means by which the family subsist. In this economically impoverished community a young social worker Robert Katende (David Oyelowo) has set up a chess club. Chess as a game requires its participants to think ahead. In playing the game some of the children might therefore transfer that expertise to other parts of their life. Into his chess club, housed in a shack, illiterate Phiona Mutesi creeps. He quickly realises that Phiona Mutesi is a chess prodigy. The story is of the innumerable barriers, social snobbery, familial obstructiveness that lies in her way as she attempts to show that she is a master of chess.
It is a story of surmounting fearful odds, with a young, highly intelligent female as the heroine. It is set in the dazzling array of colour that surrounds life in the Katwe slum. The diversity of strong colours is kaleidoscopic. However the vibrancy of the colours cannot conceal the appalling living conditions. As cinema does not reveal the smells of open drains and sewers the audience is made aware of the stench by the fact that complaints are made about Phiona’s smell when she first enters the chess club. It also underlines her very low starting point. Her rise is the flowering of the daily hard work of Robert Katende. His story and that of his family is subsidiary to that of Phiona’s but hers would not have happened without his. Their respective stories create a symbiosis.
The other strong character is Harriet, Phiona’s mother. She is uneducated and often not able to see further than from where the next morsel of food can be scavenged. But she is an intelligent woman who has endured an extremely hard life. In the Katwe slum her humiliations and deprivations are constant. As Phiona’s genius begins to blossom, she is deeply suspicious of this alien new world. She too travels on a journey into the unknown. The supporting cast of the other children are like children anywhere, full of pleasant and unpleasant surprises. It all makes for a rich mix.
This is a feel good movie undoubtedly but it also underlines the truth that geniuses can be found anywhere, even in the most unlikely of places, such as the slums of Kampala. Mira Nair has created a film that is visually beautiful which tells a compelling story with pride and serenity.
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