Queen of Katwe is an emotional and inspirational film, sprinkled with Disney magic, although the true story does most of the heartrending speaking for itself.
Phiona (newcomer Nalwanga) sells maize in Katwe, one of Uganda’s most notorious slums. Following her brother one day, in the hopes of finding a meal, Phiona stumbles upon a chess programme run by Robert Katende (Oyelowo). Urged to join in, her natural talent emerges and she excels.
David Oyelowo is utterly convincing, yet again, as Katende, with the character of a man finding his true purpose in training impoverished kids – and being inspired by their tenacity – exuding from every pore. Lupita Nyong’o is equally comfortable in the skin of Phiona’s mother Harriet, who yearns for more for her children than she ever had but is conscious of the price.
The children at Queen of Katwe‘s core are charming, with personalities that zing off the screen effortlessly – particularly in the case of bolshy chess player Gloria (Nikita Waligwa) and Phiona’s cheeky brothers Brian (Martin Kabanza) and baby Richard (Ivan Jacobo). Nalwanga is low-key but sublime as the quiet Phiona, mirroring her character’s journey as a kid from Katwe.
Queen of Katwe shows the poverty and peril of these kids’ situation – but it also revels in the human spirit and brightness of Uganda: Phiona’s success is Katwe’s success. As the first big studio to produce a film set in Africa with an entirely black cast, Disney must be applauded – and long may it continue.
Perhaps it’s slightly formulaic, but as it’s how the real events unfolded it’s all the more touching and triumphant. You can’t be cynical, least of all when introduced to the real people at the film’s close. The real Phiona, now 20, is eyeing study at Harvard, by the way.
CAST: Madina Nalwanga, David Oyelowo, Lupita Nyong’o, Martin Kabanza, Esther Tebandeke, Ronald Ssemaganda
DIRECTOR: Mira Nair
WRITER: William Wheeler (screenplay), Tim Crothers (book)
SYNOPSIS: Phiona’s difficult life in a Ugandan slum is transformed forever when she stumbles across a chess outreach programme and its committed coach Robert Katende.