Queen of Katwe is a joyous true story of triumph against the odds told by Mira Nair, starring Madina Nalwanga, Lupita Nyong’o and David Oyelowo.
Pawn Promotedby Alexa Dalby
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
Mira Nair brings her characteristic fluid flair, vibrant colour and joyous use of music to the dramatisation of the true story of Phiona Mutesi, the naturally talented girl from the slums of Nairobi who went on to be Ugandan chess champion and a Grand Master at the age of 14. Phiona is played by newcomer Madina Nalwanga, Lupita Nyongo’o (12 Years a Slave)stars as her mother and David Oyelowo (A United Kingdom) as the sympathetic – and almost saintly – social worker who organised classes for slum children at the expense of his own career, spotted her aptitude for chess and determined to develop it against opposition from her mother and the powers that be.
When the film starts Phiona doesn’t attend school but ekes a living for the family by selling roasted corn. Not only does she have to contend with extreme poverty and lack of education, but also hostility from boys when she starts to beat them at chess – it’s not culturally acceptable to be beaten by a girl. Through her ability at chess, she competes in international competitions and sees the wider world outside where she grew up – inevitably, this changes her.
It’s a heartwarming true story. The shacks and alleys of the slum are realistically depicted but the film manages to avoid the sentimentality of poverty porn. Taryn Kayaze is Phiona’s older sister, who has tried to take a different way out of the slum to their mother’s disapproval, and there’s a cast of cute kids playing Phiona’s brother and the chess group of slum children.
As the credits roll, it’s fascinating to see the real people alongside the actors and the real affection between them. Nair, acclaimed for many films including The Reluctant Fundamentalist and Monsoon Wedding, has come up with a real crowdpleaser. Tim Crothers wrote the workmanlike screenplay, based on his book of the same title.
Queen of Katwe premiered as the Virgin Atlantic Gala at the 60th BFI London Film Festival and is released on 21 October 2016 in the UK.