'Queen of Katwe:' Chess, Uganda, and an Inspiring Underdog Tale

By Abby Olcese 10-03-2016
Image via Queen of Katwe/Facebook.

Like many people, I am a fan of underdog sports movies — even if I’m not a fan of watching actual sports. Rooting for scrappy characters to rise to the top makes great entertainment. It’s rewarding to watch people overcome adversity and school their opponents through sheer determination, chutzpah and teamwork. But as fun and inspiring as movies like The Mighty Ducks or Cool Runnings can be, these movies often suffer from “white savior” syndrome, in which minority characters are led to glory and increased self-esteem by a more educated and privileged white person.

Director Mira Nair’s new film Queen of Katwe strongly follows the tried-and-true underdog formula, but with one crucial, refreshing difference: There’s not a white face in sight. Nair’s tale of real life Ugandan chess prodigy Phiona Mutesi involves no well-meaning white aid workers. There are no high-powered white professionals seeking redemption, or tortured first-worlders looking to “find themselves” in an impoverished country. Instead, the movie is full of compassionate, strong characters of color working to create better lives for each other in their own community.

Phiona (newcomer Madina Nalwanga) lives with her mother (Lupita Nyong’o) and her three siblings in the slums of Katwe in Kampala, Uganda. She discovers chess at a neighborhood sports outreach program run by coach Robert Katende (David Oyelowo), and quickly displays a natural aptitude for the game. Phiona and her chess club, the Pioneers, rack up a string of titles, from defeating private school kids at a local competition to a national, then international, stage. Phiona’s success, and the support of her community, allow her to attend school and pursue Chess Master status. Meanwhile, Phiona’s mother struggles to keep her family together, and keep her daughter grounded.

In addition to its cast, another notable element of Queen of Katwe is the way it casually but effectively portrays faith in the lives of its characters. Depictions of faith in the film are never heavy-handed or preachy. Instead, we see how belief in God influences the lives of the characters in an everyday capacity, as in Phiona’s questioning of the divine plan for her family, or the way her mother finds strength in prayer, or how Katende’s faith directs his selfless commitment to the children he mentors. 

For all its good work and intentions, Queen of Katwe isn’t without significant problems — at two hours, it drags a bit, and hits many of the same story beats again and again. While the film is honest about the living situation in the Katwe slums, it often leans toward the sugar-coated and sentimental (it is a family film, after all). And the kids in the cast are charming, but aren’t natural actors. They seem especially stilted next to top-level pros like Oyelowo and Nyong’o, both of whom shine here.

During Queen of Katwe’s premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival, director Nair, who lives in Uganda, quoted the motto of the Maisha Film Lab, a filmmaking program she founded in east Africa: “If we don’t tell our own stories, no one else will.”

The film’s admirable adherence to that ethic transcends whatever issues of length or performance it may have. Queen of Katwe is a movie committed to the real people whose story it tells, showing their struggles, strength, love and faith. No white savior required.

Abby Olcese is a freelance film critic and writer based in Kansas. You can find her on Twitter @indieabby88.

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