Classic Movie Review: Queen of Katwe (2016)

Posted: June 17, 2017 in Drama
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Queen of Katwe

Phiona Mutesi (Madina Nalwanga) is a young girl growing up in a poor village called Katwe in Uganda, selling maize in Uganda to help feed her mother and siblings.  One day Phiona follows her younger brother to a run-down building.  She wants to make sure he stays out of trouble.  What the kids are actually doing in that building is playing chess.  The kids in the building make fun of Phiona because she is poor and does not smell good, but the man running the program, Robert Katande, (David Oyelowo) invites Phiona in and gives her a cup of warm milk.  Phiona takes to chess almost immediately,  and beats the champ of their small group, which inspires Robert to plan for her to compete in an expensive private school competition.  One problem, Phiona’s mother, Nakku Harriet (Lupita Nyong’o) is suspicious of Robert’s intentions, and threatens to keep Phiona away from Robert’s chess school, and the private school’s headmaster wants Phiona or her mom to pay the exorbitant entry fee for the tournament. Does her mother let her go to Robert Katande’s chess school?  Who pays the tournament fee?

I love chess, so I may be biased, but this is a great film.  It shows the seemingly endless possibilities that can open from a young girl’s exposure to chess.  Phiona’s journey is not sugarcoated in the least, she faces a lot of problems, her mother faces a lot of problems raising a large family alone.  Despite all that, Phiona has hope and that hope is provided by Robert Katande and by chess.  Hope imbues this film with a warmth that is very gratifying. One of the things that I hope to achieve with this blog is to make people want to see movies that they may not want to see.  This is a film that you may not have wanted to see, or may not even know about, but you should see it.  You will not be sorry.

The acting is superb.  Hollywood played a mean trick on Lupita Nyong’o, at 34 she’s playing a mother of 5, and several of her kids look like they’re in their late teens.  Lupita pulls of the role with grit and honesty, sometimes angry, sometimes achingly heartbroken.  I didn’t even know it was her until halfway through the film, that it was her she looked older and acted like an authority figure, so she really made me believe in the character, what better compliment can I give her?  Credit her also for taking difficult roles and downplaying her beauty.  In 12 Years A Slave she was abused mercilessly, in Star Wars VII, she was under tons of prosthetic makeup, and in this movie she is nearly unrecognizable. David Oyelowo is also outstanding as Robert Katande, he gives Robert Katende a genuine sense of honor, dignity and self-sacrifice.  He was also outstanding as Martin Luther King Jr. in Selma. Madina Nalwanga is also incredible as Phiona, this is her debut role, to show such poise and confidence, and then unleash emotion at the drop of a hat, is incredible.

Mira Nair, the director of this film, deserves a lot of credit for the way this story was told, her pacing in prior movies is horrendously slow, but she keeps the pace going at a good pace here.  Nair also lives in Uganda, so a lot of this film was shot in Uganda and other parts of Africa, so that gives the movie an authentic look and feel .  She gets great performances from everyone in the film, many of whom are kids which can be difficult.  David Oyelowo is Nigerian ethnically Nyongo is Nigerian ethnically, and Madina Nalwanga is from Uganda, so Nair deserves a lot of credit for casting the movie authentically.

The Queen of Katwe:  A Good Knight At the Movies.


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