Rated PG. Running time: 2 hour 4 min.
Our content ratings: Violence 1; Language 1; Sex/Nudity 2.
Our star rating (1-5): 5
Whoever is kind to the poor lends to the Lord,
and he will reward them for what they have done.
… and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him.
Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written:
“The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
What a pleasure to watch a film totally about Africans overcoming adversity without any noble white person around to assist them! Nine-year-old Phiona Mutesi (Madina Nalwanga) is indeed an underdog, living with her single mother Harriet (Lupita Nyong’o) in the slum of Katwe in Kampala, Uganda. Her rescuer and mentor is the black minister Robert Katende (David Oyelowo), a former soccer player who has started a chess club in an old dilapidated church building.
Mira Nair, the director who gifted us with Monsoon Wedding, has scored again with this excellent film fit for the whole family. And it touches on social justice issues as well! The script by William Wheeler is based on Tim Crothers’ nonfiction book of the same name. The game of chess is not as cinematic as basketball or football, but the filmmakers manage to catch the excitement in the room as Phiona and her opponents make their moves, capturing each other’s pieces. Those who know the game might wish for longer match sequences, but for us who know barely the moves of the pieces, just enough is shown to give us an idea of the game’s complexity. Like most game/sports films, this one is really about human relationships and the struggles of the heart.
Phiona lives with her mother and older sister and two brothers in a Kampalan shanty town where they and their mother barely eke out a living selling produce in the streets. One day she follows Brian (Martin Kabanza) to the church where she sees him join a group of children whom Robert is teaching the rudiments of chess. To draw in the participants, he gives the always hungry children a large cup of porridge at the beginning of a session. Phiona becomes fascinated by the game as a smaller girl explains the moves of the pieces. She is especially intrigued that a lowly pawn, much like herself, can struggle across the board to be transformed into a queen. Soon she is surging ahead in the inter-group competitions. Robert is astonished at her prowess, learning that she can see eight moves ahead. He offers her some of his chess books, but the girl cannot read. Many of the other children also prove to be good chess players, so he manages to finagle an invitation for his club to a regional chess competition at a prep school.
The students at the posh school where the match takes place look down on the newcomers dressed in castoff clothing. (I was reminded at this point of the way in Pride the ghetto youth swim was treated by the white suburban teams at their first match.) After a handshake with Phiona one arrogant student wipes his hand on the tablecloth. It is he whom the girl plays, and what a surprise it is for him when she beats him. Indeed, led by Phiona, the interlopers come away with the prize trophy. Phiona can scarcely believe in her victory. “Did he let me win?’ she asks her coach.
There are yet many obstacles for the girl to overcome. Her mother needs a lot of convincing from Robert to allow her children to continue to participate in matches. She fears that they are being set up for great disappointment in a world stacked against the poor slum dwellers. She also needs them to help sell their vegetables and fetch water from a distant public source. Also, the girl is illiterate, so Robert manages to raise funds for her to go to school, just as earlier he had returned briefly to his professional soccer team to earn money to pay for the enrollment fee for his students in their first tournament. Phiona does not always win, so she must learn to deal with defeat: coached by Robert, Phiona and her team represent Uganda at an international match in Russia, but she loses. The teary-eyed girl is so distraught that she is ready to give up chess. It is Robert who consoles her and motivates her to continue on. Back home in Katwe she and her teammates are still given a royal welcome, and later one man calls out to her that the next time she will win.
Harriet is upset when oldest daughter Night (Taryn “Kay” Kyaze) leaves home to live with a rough older man whom she had tried to keep away from her daughter. The poverty-stricken mother faces another crisis when Brian is hit by a motor scooter. It is Night’s boyfriend who rushes on his motorbike the injured boy to the hospital. Unable to pay for Brian’s medical treatment, Harriet and Phiona sneak him out of the ward. Confronted at home by their landlady demanding rent, the whole family is thrown out onto the street. During this period Phiona moves in for a while with Robert and his wife Sara (Esther Tebandeke), becoming estranged from her mother.
Robert’s devotion to Phiona and the other students grows out of his own boyhood experience of being orphaned while still very young. He has never forgotten his boyhood pain. After graduating from college with an engineering degree and briefly playing professional soccer, he was unable to find work as an engineer. He took the job with the church-based Sports Outreach Institute working with slum children, thinking that it would be temporary. However, his impact on the children was so rewarding that he began to feel called by God to lift them into a better life. He also apparently has found an equally dedicated wife, willing to support him in his ministry. This includes late in the story a decision involving a great sacrifice to them both. Another admirable trait in Robert is his delight when Phiona starts beating him. There is no trace of chagrin or self-concern at being outplayed by his pupil.
All of the main characters are people of faith, though this is not over stated as it might have been were this made by a faith-based studio. We watch some of them praying, but do not see them at worship. (I found myself wishing that there was such scene, as from my own experience with the church in Ghana I knew this would have been a lively one.) They do not engage in much God-talk, but faith is clearly depicted as central to their lives.
We might also consider Ms. Nair’s film as another fine mother-daughter film. Harriet is fiercely protective of her children, so much so that at times this raises a wall between her and the two daughters. Forced to cope on her own after her husband and another daughter were struck down by AIDS, she is as strong a mother as any of the innumerable ones played by Susan Sarandon. * The nadir for her is the sequence in which her cold-hearted landlady demands she pay the rent immediately. Lacking money, Harriet swallows her pride and begs that they can stay until she can secure it. The woman refuses and turns her and the children into the street. As she walks with the children through the slum she sees women who cope by selling their bodies. She resists this temptation. Much later Robert pays her the compliment that she has been a good mother, thus strengthening in her a sense of dignity and pride.
The street scenes captured by cinematographer Sean Bobbitt are a delight, filled with colorfully garbed people, some with burdens carried on their heads; street venders and hawkers; bicycle and motor scooters, some of the latter carrying a whole family, along with dilapidated cars crawling through the pedestrian-crowded streets; rubbish piled high outside the jerry-built shacks—director Nair herself, though a native of India, has been living in Kampala for over 20 years, so she has a feel for local color. Also enjoyable at the end of the film are the series of side by side shots of the actors and the people they portrayed, along with information about the real person’s current status. ** It is gratifying to see that not only Phiona, but several others in her family also have scored many victories in chess. This film is certain to rank near the top of VP’s Top Ten Films at the end of this year. What a wonderful film of faith, hope, love, and human solidarity!
*For the memorable moms played by this talented actress, ranging from Lorenzo’s Oil to The Meddler, see my article “Mothers as Played by Susan Sarandon.”
**To see side by side photos and a great amount of information about the real characters go to the History vs. Hollywood site at: http://www.historyvshollywood.com/reelfaces/queen-of-katwe/. Also included are several interviews.
This review with a set of questions will be in the Nov. 2016 issue of VP.