by Elizabeth Stoddard
When was the last time you walked out of a movie theater with a full heart? For me, it happened when I saw Queen of Katwe. Mira Nair, an Indian-American director (an admitted favorite of mine) who splits time between New York and Uganda, assembles an outstanding cast and invites the viewer into the lives of a family living on the edges of Kampala.
Phiona (newcomer Madina Nalwanga) is the second daughter of an overwhelmed, uneducated widow (Lupita Nyong’o, in her first live-action role since 12 Years a Slave) working hard to feed her family. Adolescent Phiona and her brother Brian (Martin Kabanza, another newcomer!) hawk maize on the roadside until they run across a club/ministry for the children of Katwe led by Robert Katende (David Oyelowo). They are drawn into the world of chess, where Phiona’s young coach Gloria (Nikita Waligwa) tells her, “In chess the small one can become the big one. That is why I like it.”
Oyelowo and Nyong’o are the major stars here and shine accordingly, but they truly support the younger actors. Nair captures honest and endearing performances from these Ugandan children. The story allows even the supporting characters to be dimensional, so we’re not surprised at the responses of Gloria or Benjamin (Ethan Nazario Lubega) to game losses. There’s also a perfect level of emotional honesty in the portrayal of Phiona and her family and how they deal with their circumstances. Certainly there are sacrifices made by characters in the film, but there’s a lack of brutal irony.
Given the rhythms of the speech in Queen of Katwe, the focus on a young girl’s journey, and the vibrancy of the costuming and setting, there’s never a doubt that this is a nontraditional sports film. There’s no white savior to rescue Phiona… only the support system she builds among the kids in her group (the Pioneers), her coach Katende, her siblings, and her mother. With her proficiency at the game, Phiona becomes her own hero.
2016 has been a pretty lousy year. We can’t wait for this contentious election to finally be over. We mourn the loss of amazing talents; we’re disappointed by others who held much promise. Death is a constant in our media landscape, and it’s hard to hold out much hope. Yet a movie like Queen of Katwe does, and it instills hope in the viewer as they watch.
It’s not a false hope, or a feeling packed with saccharine. You see the struggle these characters work through, and the depth of their resilience and the utter goodness to them, and you feel deeply inspired. You may walk out of the theatre still singing along with the closing song “#1 Spice,” attempting to create as keen and sharp a snap with your fingers as the kids do in the movie. Even if you can’t quite get it, your heart is still brimming. And in such a year, at such a time, the necessity of such a film cannot be diminished.