Queen of KATWE: A story of Triumph and Spirit

  • December 13, 2016

Uplifting view of Africa praised in Mira Nair’s blend of a mettlesome story with a Disney movie

African stories on the big screen have a history of portraying a few peculiar subjects like wars, disasters, diseases, genocides etc. But this film is the story of a 10- year old girl from the slums of Katwe, Uganda who rises to shine as a chess champion; someone who rejoices in the accession of her dream to learn the sport and excel in it. It is onething that each one of us can relate to.

The Disney film, directed by Mira Nair, the Indo-American film maker has filmed a true story of Phiona Mutesi, a Ugandan chess prodigy who became a ‘Woman Candidate Master’ after her performances at the 2010 World Chess Olympiads.

The story first went viral after sports writer Tim Crothers published an indepth profile on the chess champion for ESPN. Crothers was so fascinated by Phiona’s story that he planned on publishing a full biography titled The Queen of Katwe: A Story of Life, Chess, and One Extraordinary Girl’s Dream of Becoming a Grandmaster. Soon after Walt Disney licensed the rights to the book.

Hollywood might have considered The Queen of Katwe, a risky move for Disney; but one knows how a Disney drama feels like, dreamlike, fancy, sentimental and glistening. Mira Nair, undoubtedly has been the right choice directing the movie, her direction builds a real environment for the story, gripping the audience throughout. This attributed to her connection with the Ugandan capital of Kampala as she lived there for 27 years.

The role of teenage Phiona Mutesi is enacted by a newcomer, Madina Nalwanga. She meets Robert Atende, role played by David Oyelowo, the coach who teaches children chess. After being taught the game, Phiona develops a penchant for it, amused and curious about how a pawn can transform into a queen.

The children in the movie are localites with no prior training in acting. Oscar-winning Lupita Nyong’o plays the role of Phiona’s mother, Harriet. David Oyelowo recognizes the potential and intelligence in Phiona. It is her mother who does not want her child to dream as she knows they are bound to shatter. She doesn’t want to see her child disappointed, but then she is brought by her daughter’s dedication and perseverance around to the fact that maybe she is destined to defy the norms and rules and create her own. Her mother was then ready to do anything, sacrificing her own promise of motherhood to make sure that Phiona doesn’t let her dreams die a slow death. The characters have inhabited their Ugandan roles with ease. Nair’s vivid imagination and details perfectly reflect her understanding of this earthy yet colorful set up. Most often Africa is portrayed in films as disturbed by wars and starvation, but in Queen of Katwe it sparkles with gaiety.

Chess is not the only focus for Phiona, who along with her brother Brian is taught how to read and write by her coach Atende and his wife. The story progresses with her struggle to balance her two worlds. She is a celebrity in Katwe yet concrete bed is what she gets to sleep on and candle light to study with whereas her rivals at competition have the privilege and advantage of the best trainers from the world. Phiona courageously overcomes all the odds and travels to Siberia to compete in the 2010 Chess Olympiad. “What you are used to is not where you belong” is what Coach Robert Atende passes on to her as words of wisdom.

The Queen of Katwe is a well framed story with a difficult character and teaches us how meaningfully important diversity is. Local people were given the priviledge to tell and enact their own story, something which Hollywood rarely offers. This story of triumph and spirit should definitely reach out to a word wide audience.

Queen of Katwe was released on September 30.

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