Disney has a history of making movies based on true events in various sports fields. In 2016, the “sport” they chose to make a movie of was chess. Would a true story of one of the first titled female chess players in Ugandan history captivate me? True, I’m a fan of chess, but the trailers weren’t really pulling me in. So, what did I think of Queen of Katwe after watching it? Read on to find out!
And remember, SPOILERS AHEAD!
The movie begins in 2011 where we see a young girl (tween to teenaged) entering a room where chess competitions are taking place. Everyone’s eyes are on her and her opponent happens to be a fully grown adult woman.
After the girl makes her first move. we flashback to 2007 where we see the early childhood of this girl. Her name is Phiona, played by Madina Nalwanga, and she lives in a Ugandan slum with her mother, played by Lupita Nyong’o, and a few siblings. Phiona’s father is dead, so it’s up to her, her siblings, and her mother to do various jobs (including selling maize) to earn money to take care of themselves.
Not long after, we’re introduced to Robert Katende, played by David Oyelowo, who lives in the city and is a sports teacher at a local school there. He’s on the lookout for a better job, but in the meantime, he teaches chess to some of the children in the slums. Phiona soon learns about these lessons and is interested in learning the game. At first, the other kids are mean to her and tease her about her smell (probably due to the areas she goes to sell her maize), but she doesn’t let that bother her and continues attending these lessons.
She quickly becomes incredibly skilled at the game, even practicing at home with her brother using a makeshift board and pieces.
Her skill in the game gains her the other children’s respect and friendship while Robert is impressed with her skill and the other kids’.
The movie then moves forward to 2008. By now, Robert thinks his slum kids are better at chess than average players and tries to get them in a chess tournament at a nearby school. At first, the head of the school won’t allow “slum children” to attend as they’re not proper/civilized, they’re “bringing in diseases”, and they’re otherwise not students and can’t afford the participation fees. But, Robert manages to sneakily convince the head that if he can raise the fees, then the kids will be accepted into the tournament. And about two minutes later, he participates in a soccer game and uses his victory winnings to pay the fees.
One day, Phiona’s mom, Nakku Harriet, finds out about her and her siblings learning chess from Robert. She mistakenly assumes that this is some sort of gambling den and that Robert is trying to explore the kids, so she forcibly takes her kids out of the lessons and threatens Robert to watch out. But again, like two seconds later, Robert meets Nakku selling maize and tries to explain to her that there’s no gambling and that the kids will have a chance to participate in a chess tournament. He also says that he’ll put the kids in private classes. Nakku relents and allows the kids to go to the tournament as long as Robert can keep his word.
Not long after, all the kids head to King’s College for the tournament and they’re all in awe of how amazing it is! However, they don’t adapt to the “civilized” ways of the students right away. They still prefer eating chicken with their hands rather than with knives and they sleep on the floor rather than on the beds provided for them.
When the chess tournament begins, each kid is paired up with one of the King’s College kids. The King’s College kids, of course, think their victory will be an easy win for them, but many of them are shocked when the “slum children” turn out to be the victors for some of the games. Phiona even beats the King’s College champion and for that, she’s awarded with a special medal from the Ugandan Chess Federation.
They return back home, but when they get back home, Phiona’s younger brother gets hit by a bike and has to be taken to the hospital. Thankfully, the hospital treats him, but the family isn’t able to pay for the fees so they sneak out before doing so. When they reach home, they find out that their landlady has evicted them from their “slum house” because they haven’t been paying their rent. Nakku then takes her kids to find somewhere else to live and to try to make ends meet. Phiona gives up playing chess for the time being, but not too long after, she decides to take it up again.
We are now in 2009 where Phiona and two others have been invited to represent Uganda in the African chess championship in Sudan. And thankfully, they do end up winning for Uganda. The success does go to her head a bit though when she gets into arguments with her mother about not wanting to do chores and that she’s not happy with the life they have/they are able to afford. Nakku tries to understand it from Phiona’s point of view and she does what she can to make life easier for Phiona.
Now, it’s 2010 and Phiona has applied to participate in a championship in Russia. She wants to become a Master because they get financial stipends. The good news is that she does qualify and gets to travel to Russia and even sees snow. The bad news is that her cockiness is still there and as a result of that, she loses the game (well, resigns) and breaks down believing she can’t be a master. She heads back home after this defeat.
Back home, she discovers that her older sister who has been dating a guy is now pregnant. Worried that she may follow into her older sister’s footsteps, Phiona asks Robert if she can temporarily live with him and his wife in the city. She would still go to school and practice chess, but just wants to be away from that environment for a while. Robert doesn’t mind and speaks to Nakku about it too.
Finally, we’re back in 2011 at that championship we were witnessing at the beginning of the film. We see Robert, Nakku, and the other “slum children” watching Phiona’s every move. And as can be expected, Phiona wins the game and beats her adult opponent much to the joy of everyone else! The movie ends in 2012 where Phiona’s life story is made into a book and she uses the money from that to buy her family a proper house to live in. The actors then appear next to the real-life people they portrayed with words showing up on the screen telling us what those people are upto now.
And that was Queen of Katwe. Um, what can I say about it? It’s heart was in the right place. It wanted to tell a story of this girl and make us feel for her as she deals with her life and the hope that chess brought her. Sadly, it’s not the best made biopic which is where the film fails. Now only does the film get kinda slow many times in the film, but there are numerous instances (like I’ve mentioned) where a conflict is introduced, but is then solved like two seconds afterwards!
For example, one scene that I didn’t mention is when Nakku is trying to get some more money to buy paraffin with. So, she quickly decides to sell some of her clothes to get money. She heads to the market and flirts with a guy who likes her and he buys the clothes from her and….that’s it. There’s no mentioning of this incident ever again or any in-depth analysis of who the guy is. There’s just the conflict of needing money for paraffin, and then two seconds later, we have money for paraffin!
So if all these conflicts are just being solved not long after being introduced, what then is the point of telling us about these conflicts in the first place? To pull a Victory Hugo and just mention it for the sake of exactness? I feel that in films, the solving of conflicts is what makes a film interesting to watch, rather than just the end result of conflicts.
Not to say that there aren’t any positives about the film. Many of the performances were great, especially those of the adults. David Oyelowo and Lupita Nyong’o were extremely good at their parts and Madina Nalwanga wasn’t that bad either. The film isn’t a terrible waste of time, but I just see it more as a TV film rather than a theatrical release.
(You can click on the image below for an enlarged version of my rating sheet.)
The next review will be posted on March 6, 2017.