BWW Review: QUEEN of KATWE Deserves the Trophy, Pennant, Belt, and Title

QUEEN OF KATWE, a genuinely moving sports film from Mira Nair, is now playing in Houston in New Orleans. The film, based on a true story, stars David Oyelowo, Lupita Nyong'o and introduces Madina Nalwanga. QUEEN OF KATWE releases worldwide on September 30.


For most Americans, "suburb" conjures images of mini-vans, homogeneous homes with white picket fences and neon green grass. The Katwe suburb of Kampala, Uganda is the opposite. Cars, roofs, fences, and manicured grass are luxuries not afforded to Katwe residents.

It is here where 9-year-old Phiona Mutesi (Madina Nalwanga) and her brother Brian (Martin Kabanza) sell maize on the streets. And their mother Harriet, played by Oscar® winner Lupita Nyong'o, scrambles to provide food, shelter, and physical and emotional care for her four children. It's all they can do to keep the family's head above water.

Golden Globe® nominee David Oyelowo is Phiona's chess coach, Robert Katende. Katende, star of his own rags-to-riches story knows that he can exploit his students' pre-existing strategic skills (necessary for survival in economically impoverished but crime rich suburb) to position the children for upward mobility. Phiona, a prodigy, takes to his approach quickly and easily.

Director Mira Nair cinematically portrayed street children in SALAAM BOMBAY! and Kampala, Uganda in MISSISSIPPI MASALA. The former is painful and dejecting, rightfully so, but this has the effect of distancing the viewer just out of sheer self-protection. The latter is richly wrought, but Nair bit off more than she could chew. QUEEN OF KATWE gets it just right. The film does not shy away from Phiona's hardships, but Nair paces the film so thoughtfully, never giving the audience more than it can bear. And while it is ultimately a story of triumph, Nair avoids a tidy ending. It is the story that any second generation American can relate to. Phiona's life has changed in unimaginable ways, but her family's has changed in modest ways. Nair also renders the Ugandan landscape and social strata in detail, but she never overshadows Phiona's story.

Madina Nalwanga brings the quiet intensity and acting range the role requires. She is a defeated but determined child, cocky star athlete, dismissive daughter, and a silly, fun-loving child. Nyong'o's talent is so great it almost overpowers the film. And her Harriet Mutesi is the reason football players thank their mommas and God in the same sentence as well as the reason Kevin Durant called his mother "the real MVP" with tears streaming down his face during his 2013-14 MVP award acceptance speech.

It is a remarkably restrained sports film. HOOSIERS, ANY GIVEN SUNDAY, and REMEMBER THE TITANS would have you believe that coaches spend half-time delivering Gettysburg worthy monologues to their athletes. This couldn't be further from the truth. Kerri Strug famously stuck a landing and landed a trophy on a bum ankle and torn ligaments, receiving all the strength and fortitude necessary with a "You can do it" from her coach, Béla Károlyi. It's a credit to screenwriter William Wheeler that he has the courage and self-control to keep to the simplicity of real life. And a testament to Oyelowo's talent that he can give credence to simplistic chess analogies in a world where families can't afford roofs or beds.

The characters are all three-dimensional. Phiona is an ungrateful daughter. In a weak moment, the middle-class Katende overtly condescends to Harriet. The children cry and whine when they lose and gloat when they win. These flaws make the characters more relatable.

You don't have to speak the language of chess or Katwe to understand Phiona, Harriet, and Coach Katende. Whether you're a kid from the Southside of Boston, the south side of the Bronx, or the south side of Texas, you'll find yourself in love with the Mutesi family, the chess playing children, and the Katwe neighborhood Phiona grew up in. And like Durant, you may find yourself crying in comically large proportions throughout the movie.

Mira Nair's QUEEN OF KATWE, starring David Oyelowo, Lupita Nyong'o and introducing Madina Nalwanga, is now playing in Houston and New Orleans. The film, based on a remarkable true story, releases worldwide September 30. Rated PG for thematic elements, an accident scene and some suggestive material.

Photo credit: Disney


Madina Nalwanga stars as Phiona Mutesi in Disney's QUEEN OF KATWE, based on the true story of a young girl from Uganda whose world changes when she is introduced to the game of chess. Directed by Mira Nair, the film also stars Oscar (TM) winner Lupita Nyong'o and David Oyelowo.


David Oyelowo is Robert Katende and Madina Nalwanga is Phiona Mutesi in Disney's QUEEN OF KATWE, the vibrant true story of a young girl from the streets of rural Uganda whose world rapidly changes when she is introduced to the game of chess. Oscar (TM) Lupita Nyong'o also stars in the film, directed by Mira Nair.


Oscar (TM) winner Lupita Nyong'o is Nakku Harriet and newcomer Madina Nalwanga is Phiona Mutesi in Disney's QUEEN OF KATWE, the vibrant true story of a young girl from the streets of rural Uganda whose world rapidly changes when she is introduced to the game of chess. Newcomer Madina Nalwanga also stars in the film, directed by Mira Nair.


David Oyelowo is Robert Katende and Madina Nalwanga is Phiona Mutesi in in Disney's QUEEN OF KATWE, based on a true story of a young girl from the streets of rural Uganda whose world rapidly changes when she is introduced to the game of chess. Oscar (TM) winner Lupita Nyong'o also stars in the film, directed by Mira Nair.



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From This Author Katricia Lang