Everything about this film is improbable.
First, there is the story itself.
An illiterate child, who sells corn in the streets of the poorest slum of Uganda, becomes an internationally celebrated teenage chess champion. This would be too saccharine for even Disney. If it weren’t a true story.
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And then there is the casting.
Academy Award winning actor Lupita Nyong’o plays a supporting role as mother to the lead, a 16 year old actor named Madina Nalwanga. The talented young Madina spent her own childhood selling corn in the Katwe slum, just like the protagonist that she portrays. Madina saw her very first movie in a theater, (Jurassic World) as a special outing with the cast, while filming the new Disney movie. The second time she saw a move in a theater, she walked the red carpet and watched the Toronto premiere of the film in which she starred.
Disney made some bold decisions. They took the familiar formula, in which a young girl in a dire situation overcomes obstacles and achieves her dreams. But instead of a fantasy world, they chose a story which takes place in a contemporary reality that most of us know little about. They didn’t build sets. They went into the communities where the story takes place, and integrated the residents into the film, both as extras and as stars.
The villain in this film is poverty, which cheats human beings out of achieving all that they are capable of. There is no white savior. There is no prince. They chose a heroine, a real heroine, whose brilliant mind is her own salvation. Sure. They skipped over the war, and didn’t address the origins of a political and social systems that marginalize people like Phiona. But they leave viewers hungry to ask why. And that is a great start.
In 2012, Tim Crothers, a former editor at Sports Illustrated Magazine, wrote a book about the first 16 years of Phiona’s amazing life. I haven’t read the book yet, but after seeing the movie, it is next on my reading list. Check it out here.
And don’t forget to view the trailer, at the end of this post.
Minor spoilers ahead.
Filmed on location in an incomprehensibly impoverished Ugandan slum, Queen of Katwe tells the true story of Phiona Mutesi. Phiona is first drawn to chess because free porridge is provided by the missionary who runs the children’s chess program. And she was hungry. After her father had died of AIDS, her mom sent the kids to work selling corn in the street. We see other neighborhood children in their school uniforms, passing Phiona as she carries her wares through the trash covered, unpaved streets. A four year old girl introduces Phiona to the movement of each chess piece. And with a makeshift chess set made from discarded bottle caps, she practices with her brother at night by the light of a lamp consisting of a single wick in a bottle of oil.
Phiona has a natural talent for chess. A prodigy. She surpasses her coach, who is startled to realize that she can plan eight moves ahead. She goes on to attend tournaments. At first, she travels to Uganda’s elite schools, where the other children treat her with disdain. Later, she represents her nation in a competition in the Sudan. And at 16 she represents Uganda in a Russian tournament.
Phiona’s family becomes homeless several times during the story. Unable to pay the rent after her brother suffers a serious injury, they sleep on the streets. Phiona’s elder sister supports the family through work that adults will understand as an option of last resort for young girls with no education and no access to resources. My ten year old understood the situation to be that she had a boyfriend that her mother didn’t approve of. But a pre-pubescent Phiona understands that this may be her future too.
The film is visually beautiful and complex. From the fragile, insufficient infrastructure of the Katwe slums, to the bustling business districts of Kampala, to the tidy middle class homes of public school teachers, to the elite campuses of the private schools, Queen of Katwe provides a portrait of Uganda, a portrait of Africa, that is rarely seen by foreign audiences.
Look at this photo of the real Phiona at 16, in 2012. Those beautifully muscular arms, that we don’t usually associate with chess players, were formed by hauling water. Water to drink. To cook. To bathe.
I loved this film. It is the ultimate “feel good” movie. But it is so much more than that. Beyond the inspiring story of Phiona, there it a simple but profound subtext. We are left with the nagging understanding that she is certainly not the only one living in Katwe whose skills remain untapped and unrecognized. The film is mandate to honor human potential.
Be sure to stay for the closing credits, when the actors are joined by their real life counterparts. Twenty year old Phiona stands with sixteen year old Madina. Lupita Nyong’o stands with Phiona’s real mother, and actor David Oyelowo stands next to Phiona’s mentor and coach. Even the little girl, who at 4 years old, taught Phiona to move the chess pieces, joins her counterpart on screen.
But the most moving moment occurs when Phiona’s real sister, Night, steps out to join the actor who portrayed her in the film. The actor drops to her knees as she greets and honors the young woman whose sordid life she portrayed. Night, clearly surprised and flustered, lifts the actor to her feet. This is an unscripted moment that captures the intimate relationship that the cast clearly have with the story they have told.
As the mom of a 10 year old, I know all of the Disney heroines. I know the formulas. The princesses have become stronger and more independent in my daughter’s lifetime. But none of them come close to story of Phiona. And unlike the fictional heroines, or the inaccurately recreated historical figures, Phiona is a living, breathing human being, on the cusp of womanhood, pursuing her dream of becoming a Grand Master. The movie ends four years ago, when Phiona was 16. But her young life continues. Our children can chart her life as she grows and accomplishes. The real Phiona can inspire our children, and us, for decades to come.
Phiona is a superstar whose life overshadows that of every Disney heroine who came before her.
Take your daughter to see the Queen of Katwe. Do it this week. Take your son. Hey, take your grandmother, because everyone needs to see this movie.
And don’t forget to check out the book about Phiona’s first 16 years of life!
And check out the official trailer to Queen of Katwe.