I’m not above admitting that sports movies are not the one for me. Especially chess movies. And yet here I am, gasping and weeping and cheering in all the right places as our 14-year-old heroine kicks the arse of a woman twice her age at the beautiful game. GO PHIONA!
A fine choice by Jill for Feminist Film Week.
Queen of Katwe (2016)
A Ugandan girl sees her world rapidly change after being introduced to the game of chess.
Phiona Mutesi (Madina Malwanga) lives with her family in the slums of Katwe, Uganda. Times are fucking tough and she’s expected, along with her brother Brian (Martin Kabanza), to get out there and help earn the money to keep them fed and housed.
One day Brian gets talking with a local football coach Robert (David Oyelowo) who notices him sitting on the sidelines of a match being played by the other boys. Brian is adamant that football is dangerous and therefore not something he’s up for. Coach Robert mentions another game that might be more his speed, especially when utilised to drift rich city boys out of their gold watches. Yes, he’s talking about chess – bet you never thought of it in such glamorous terms?
Brian goes along to the local youth center to learn how to play under Robert’s tutelage. Shortly afterwards, Phiona follows and at first is mocked by the other children for her less than hygienic appearance. Girl’s been working, you pricks, cut her some slack. Much to Robert’s delight, Phiona doesn’t run away, instead she beats down the instigator of the teasing and returns the next day freshing showered and ready to learn.
Over the course of several years Phiona proves herself to be a talented and forward-thinking player, able to think eight moves ahead, something only the very great masters are capable of. Shit isn’t easy in Katwe though, not for anyone, not even coach himself.
Robert earns peanuts teaching sports to underprivileged kids and is ashamed his Engineering degree still doesn’t make him the main breadwinner in his family. His lovely school-teacher wife and baby love him though and frankly, Sara (Esther Tebandeke) is a saint. She embraces Phiona immediately and teaches her to read the chess books Robert has in his collection. The couple get both Brian and Phiona into school on scholarships – and are probably the greatest living humans on this planet.
Phiona’s mother Nakku (Lupita Nyong’o) is a ferocious tigress, struggling to keep her family afloat without resorting to prostituting herself like some of the other ladies in the village. (I’d have cracked on day one personally). She’s also at loggerheads with her stubborn eldest daughter Night, who has run off with the local bad boy.
Nakku is torn between letting her daughter grab opportunity where it’s presented – and being a stone cold realist. And when Phiona, fresh from a string of successes in various tournaments starts showing signs of cockiness, she is eager to shut it down. Will she come round to Phiona’s dreams or will she put her foot down once and for all?
Will Phiona perform as well as she thinks she will in big competition or is it too soon for her? And will the family ever settle in their own home, no longer dependent on the tolerance of indifferent landlords?
Only one way to find out!
Sometimes it’s just really nice to watch a feel-good movie. Films like this often pass me by because I prefer my entertainment a little grimier, but I guess the whole point of collaborating with a partner is to try things I wouldn’t normally and I was pleased with this.
A Disney movie, this was always going to be on the wholesome side but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have an edge. Lupita is a highlight for me, she is such a star. Malwanga too carries this film with such tenacity that you’re continually rooting for her. I love the chemistry between all the kids in fact.
3.5/5. Check flipping mate!