From a Pawn to a ‘Queen of Katwe’

Image Courtesy of Wikimedia

Ramya Ponnambalam

Most feel-good movies can easily fall into the trap of becoming a little too cliché to be palatable, but this is definitely not the case with Queen of Katwe.

Queen of Katwe tells the true story of Phiona Mutesi, a Ugandan girl living in the slums of Katwe who discovers that she has a natural talent for chess. Phiona, who is played by Madina Nalwanga, has only ever known Katwe, but chess lets her see more and more of the world and realize that she can be more than just a vegetable seller. Phiona’s chess teacher Robert Katende (David Oyewelo), and her mother (Lupita Nyong’o) raise and support her throughout her journey, sending the time-old message that with love and support you can get through anything.

Newcomer Madina Nalwanga’s acting is unexpectedly good, especially considering her young age of 16. With such heavyweight actors as Nyong’o and Oyewelo, it’s expected that they would carry the movie, but Nalwanga easily matches their acting. Despite the difficulties Phiona goes through, she is not necessarily more mature than her years, and Nalwanga successfully manages to convey them through a child’s eyes.

Oyewelo plays Robert Katende, a charming teacher who instructs the children of Katwe on how to play chess, as a means of showing them how they can be more than the slums they are growing up in. Despite the cheesy one-liners his character often has, David Oyewelo’s portrayal is sincere, never feeling over the top.

Nyong’o plays Harriet Mutesi, Phiona’s mother, a strict and prideful woman who wants only the best for her children. While Harriet and Robert could have easily become characters who were only there to support Phiona, they had their fair amount of development as well, growing alongside Phiona. Their maturation and backstories are more subtle than Phiona’s, and it was really Nyong’o and Oyewelo’s acting that sold it.

Mira Nair’s directing is perhaps what really sets Queen of Katwe apart from other Disney movies. Nair portrays the streets of Katwe with bright colors among dull background, setting the tone for the movie: optimism even among tough times. Nair has never been one to shy away from controversial topics, and in Queen of Katwe, she does the same.

While Disney is often guilty of glossing over more violent and difficult topics, Nair portrays the very difficult and brutal struggles of living in the slums and tackles the complex concepts of class privilege, sexism and human rights. While this does make Queen of Katwe hard to watch for some younger kids, it also marks it as a refreshing change from other Disney movies.

Despite the stellar cast, great reviews and the Disney brand, the movie hasn’t been doing well in box offices with a lackluster $700,000 box office opening. This could be because there hasn’t been much in way of promotion for the movie other than its eye-catching cast, or perhaps because the film pushes the boundaries of the Disney franchise.

Queen of Katwe has a certain brutality unseen in Disney movies, and touches on rather difficult topics, placing the movie outside of the comfort zone of Disney’s target group: children. But it’s a very much needed change from what’s currently in Hollywood. It’s rare, if not unseen, to have a mainly African cast for a movie that’s not about slavery or civil rights, making the movie great for African children who can finally see a movie about them where they’re not portrayed as oppressed. While Queen of Katwe may touch on serious topics, and may even be hard to watch at some times, it’ll ultimately leave you with a soft warm feeling in your heart. If that’s what you’re looking for I can’t recommend Queen of Katwe enough.