Queen of Katwe (PG) | Close-Up Film Review

Dir. Mira Nair, USA, 2016, 124 mins

Cast:  Lupita Nyong’o, David Oyelowo, Madina Nalwanga,

This is the true life story of 10 year old Phiona Mutesi, brought up in the slum of Katwe in Kampala,Uganda, who became an international chess champion while still a child.

It is a good story and although the outcome is inevitable and predictable – we know it is going to be a story of triumph over adversity from the very beginning – it is well told by director Mira Nair and  exuberantly acted by the all black cast.

The always reliable Oyelowo plays Katende the community youth worker, who introduces Phiona and the other children of Katwe to the game of chess and through that to the possibilities of education and wider horizons.  Young actress Madina Nalwanga gives a spirited performance as Phiona, who is ten when the story opens.   Particularly impressive is Lupita Nyong’o as Harriet, Phiona’s dignified and fiercely protective widowed mother, who is struggling against the slum conditions in which she is raising her children.

Opening our eyes onto an unfamiliar world, those conditions are shocking, particularly when at one point the family is evicted for non payment of rent on what is effectively a derelict shack for which no-one should be asked to pay.   One does wonder however how Harriet manages to keep the colourful and beautiful traditional costumes she and her daughter wear in such pristine and well ironed condition.   On which subject it must be said this is also a very colourful, lively and good looking film.

Another interesting aspect is when Phiona and other members of the chess club are taken by Katende to a chess tournament in a posh private school in the city, where they choose to sleep on the floor under the beds they are allocated, never having come across proper beds before and are condescendingly described as “underprivileged children” and subject to the sort of snobbery by the pupils of the school that your might expect if you took a group of British disadvantaged children to visit Eton.

The fact that this is a true life story is reiterated in the final credits where we see the actors and the real life people they are playing meeting and embracing on screen.   It is a touching moment in a positive and life enhancing film, which really raises one’s spirits.

Review by Carol Allen