The Queen of Katwe

Posted on September 22, 2016 at 5:59 pm

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Copyright Disney 2016
An illiterate girl from the slums of Uganda became an internationally ranked chess champion. So of course there is a Disney movie. But director Mira Nair has not made the usual feel-good underdog story. It is a wonderfully rich depiction of a family and a culture, as complex in its way as a master-level chess game with intricate moves by many pieces with different strengths and vulnerabilities.

At the center of the story is Harriet (Lupita Nyong’o of “12 Years a Slave”), a young widow with five children living in dire poverty. She cannot afford to send her children to school, and so they sell maize in the street and at an open market. Her oldest daughter, Night (Taryn Kyaze) is a young teenager already attracting the attention of a man. The youngest is a baby. When Harriet’s daughter Phiona (Madina Nalwanga) and her brother are lured into a chess class with cups of porridge, Harriet is scared and angry. She needs the children to bring in money, and she believes that the chess teacher, Robert Katende (David Oyelowo of “Selma”) is using them for some sort of gambling operation. But Katende, who is waiting for a job as an engineer, persuades her that he just wants her children to learn.

Nair (“Monsoon Wedding,” “The Namesake”) has a great eye, and a great gift for creating vibrant, layered, wonderfully inviting communities on screen. As Harriet tries to protect her family, despite eviction, a sexual predator, a terrible injury, she recognizes that she has to do more than keep her children safe. She has to open the world to them. Phiona cannot read or count, but somehow she can see eight moves ahead on a chess board as only a very few masters of the game can do. Robert knows that poverty is only the beginning of the problem the children face. The snobbery and bigotry of the middle class Ugandans is the real obstacle. They will not even allow the children from the slum to compete. Robert tricks the official into agreeing to let them in if they can raise the entry fee. And then he raises the money himself, by playing soccer.

Newcomer Nalwanga, from a community much like Phiona’s, has a winning screen presence, and we can see that she has inherited her ability to think through chess problems from her mother’s canny navigation of the challenges to the family’s most basic survival. Nyong’o shows a grace and courage, even in the direst moments, that echo Phiona’s resilience.

Parents should know that this movie includes themes of poverty and deprivation, child is hurt in an accident with scenes of painful medical treatment, there are also some references to sexual predators and there is an out of wedlock teen pregnancy.

Family discussion: Why did Robert change his mind? Why did Phiona get cranky after she returned home?

If you like this, try: “Searching for Bobby Fischer,” “Brooklyn Castle,” and “Endgame”

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