Disney’s Queen of Katwe (2016) is currently on Netflix. Finally, another fairly good movie checked off my never ending watch list. If you enjoy a sports movie mixed with a family rags to riches story, Queen of Katwe is a quality biographical sports movie. The cast makes the story interesting even if the game of chess may be a boring cup of tea for some. Though it does play into some of the expected tropes one would expect from a sports movie, I think overall director Mira Nair does a wonderful job portraying the story of a poor Ugandan girl who wants to bring her family out of poverty and becomes a successful chess player. You can’t help but cheer for Phiona while she struggles through her own hardships, successes, and family conflicts.
Quick points of review:
- The cast is skilled and does an excellent job portraying their roles.
- Provides a well-rounded diverse portrayal of Africa and avoids romanticizing or melodramatics.
- The story does fall into some of the sports movie tropes, but it shines with the portrayal of Phiona, her family, and her personal strength.
- The movie is a little long and it might not be enough to entertain some younger audiences.
*Spoiler Alert! If you are avoiding spoilers, do not read further. Turn back now. You’ve been warned.*
Phiona (Madina Nalwanga) is a ten-year-old girl who lives with her mother, Harriet (Lupita Nyong’o), her sister named Night (Taryn Kyaze), and her two brothers, Brian (Martin Kabanza) and Richard (Ivan Jacobo). Phiona’s family must sell maize to make money. The family lives in the shanty town of Katwe and have had a hard time ever since the passing of Phiona’s father.
Night has a boyfriend and her mother wants Night to stay far away from this boy. Night’s mother is protective of her and fears what might happen to her daughter. The two fight and argue a lot. Eventually, Night leaves to stay with her boyfriend. Phiona and her brother continue to stay with Harriet and help sell corn until one day they happen among a group of children playing chess. The siblings decide to stay because the chess group is giving porridge to the children.
The man leading the group of children is Robert Katende (David Oyelowo) who works for a Christian ministry group. He is the mentor for the group and he invites Phiona and Brian to join the group and learn about the game of chess. At first, the children do not like Phiona and says she needs to go away because she smells, but she doesn’t let this stop her from going back. She cleans up and heads back again the next day.
As Phiona is learning about chess and visiting the group she becomes interested in the game and Robert notices she has a natural aptitude for chess. She starts to defeat some of the children in the group and eventually Robert decides to take the children to a tournament. The only problem is at first they are given excuses about why Robert cannot bring his group. Robert must also convince Harriet to let her children travel to attend the tournaments.
Robert convinces Harriet to allow the children to attend the tournaments by promising to find a way to raise the money to send them to school. Harriet reluctantly agrees, worried her children are being used or will be disappointed. Robert also earns the money to bring the children to their first tournament.
During the first tournament, the children see what a wealthy school looks like and are set to play against wealthy children. Some of the children lose and some of the children win. There are some silly moments during the tournament and Phiona is up against one of the best players at the school. She eventually defeats her opponent.
Phiona takes the time to learn more from Robert about chess and even learns to read from Robert’s wife, Sara (Esteri Tebandeke). Phiona gets a few more wins under her belt and learns as she goes. Unfortunately, Phiona’s struggles at home sometimes get in the way of her learning. Her mother thinks she should just learn to work hard and not focus on chess especially after Brian is hit by a motorcycle and taken to the hospital. Harriet cannot pay for Brian’s medical bills. When the family runs out of the hospital to avoid paying the bill, their landlord evicts them. The money Phiona used to get Brian taken to the hospital was supposed to pay the family’s rent.
Eventually, Night comes home after she becomes pregnant. Phiona is happy to see her sister again but Night is embarrassed about her situation and doesn’t want to speak with her. One day Night is told to watch their youngest brother, Richard. Night leaves with someone and tells Richard to stay there. Then it starts to rain and their home, having no roof on it, floods and Richard is almost washed away with the water until Phiona and her mother come to his rescue.
Night comes back and Harriet is angry with her daughter for leaving Richard home alone. Harriet takes Night’s belongings and throws them out. Seeing the fight between the two, Phiona pleads with her mother not to throw out Night’s things. Then Phiona decides to go to Robert’s house and stays with him while she learns about chess and how to read.
Phiona makes amends with her mother but she wants to give her mother a house and decides she is going to do this with her ability to play chess. She convinces the administration of the chess tournaments to allow her to play in an international tournament against much older players at the age of 14 in 2011. She loses and Robert has to remind her that losing is not the end. The next year after much encouragement by friends and neighbors in her community, Phiona gives the tournament another chance and wins.
One day Phiona asks her mother to follow her and surprises Harriet with a house for her family.
Geeky Talk’s Reaction to the Movie
Disney’s Queen of Katwe is filled with heart and attention to detail in the story. I really enjoyed the movie and watching the talented cast play their roles in this movie based on a true story of a Phiona Mutesi. David Oyelowo does an excellent job portraying Robert Katende with care. The audience can feel his sincerity throughout the film. Madina Nalwanga portrays Phiona and her circumstances with honesty and acceptance. Lupita Nyong’o as the concerned and protective mother feels natural. The casts’ roles are consistently natural without over dramatization.
I’m not sure exactly what I expect from a sports movie, but Queen of Katwe does fit the usual trope of the underdog story. Fortunately, the story is much more interesting thanks in part to its setting in Africa and the deeper story of not just a chess player but of Phiona and her family. The film genuinely portrays poverty in another country without romanticizing or melodramatics of the circumstances. The film allows the audience to observe the environment without interpretation of its own.
Queen of Katwe also depicts the life of Robert Katende. Katende once lived in poverty without his mother and is now trying to give back by supporting the children in Katwe through his chess group. The role of community and friends provides some hope and happy moments in the film. Thankfully the Disney film avoids American stereotyping of Uganda and Mira Nair does a fantastic job of directing the film and its story.
If you’re looking for a movie specifically about the game of chess itself, you will miss out on where the heft of the story lies. The interesting part of the story is not about the game of chess and Phiona’s mastery of chess, but the relationships between her mother, her family, and the community. Harriet believes in hard work and wants to protect Phiona and her children from disappointment due to her own life’s story.
Night rebels against her mother when she decides to leave with her boyfriend. Night’s boyfriend provides her with more money than selling maize. Phiona proves she is strong enough to take another path with her given circumstances with the support of her family, community, and her coach, Robert. It’s a touching story about a strong young woman and the film does not avoid showing some of Phiona’s losses as well. Even though this young woman veers from the example of her mother’s life, Harriet still fully supports and loves her daughter.
Disney’s Queen of Katwe is a really good story with excellently portrayed roles. It’s a Disney movie, so the ending is, of course, happy but I don’t feel it takes anything away from the story. You should go check out Queen of Katwe on Netflix right now. It’s a bit of a long movie and might not be entertaining enough to hold the attention of younger audiences, but it’s definitely a meaningful piece for those interested in Phiona Mutesi’s story. Be sure to watch it through to the end because it’s fun to see the real life people next to the actors who played them.
Have you seen Disney’s Queen of Katwe? What do you think about this film? Thank you for reading Geeky Talk’s review of Queen of Katwe. Be sure to put your Geeky Talk about the movie in the comments below. Happy geeky movie watching!