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New Release Review - QUEEN OF KATWE

The true story of prodigious chess master Phiona Mutesi.






Review by Eric Hillis (@hilliseric)

Directed by: Mira Nair

Starring: Madina Nalwanga, David Oyelowo, Lupita Nyong'o, Martin Kabanza



Mainstream western movies set in Africa rarely tell positive stories. Queen of Katwe is a refreshing break from this unhelpful narrative, a story of Africans achieving greatness unaided. The only white knights you'll find here are on the chess board.



Mainstream western movies set in Africa rarely tell positive stories, preferring to reinforce the harmful image of a continent on its knees, full of people incapable of looking after themselves without the aid of white westerners. Queen of Katwe is a refreshing break from this unhelpful narrative, a story of Africans achieving greatness unaided. The only white knights you'll find here are on the chess board.

It's the true story of Phiona Mutesi, a young girl from Katwe, a deprived slum on the outskirts of the Ugandan capital Kampala. She's played with subtle emotiveness by newcomer Maldina Nalwanga, who admirably holds her own when asked to share scenes with the acting heavyweight pair of David Oyelowo and Lupita Nyong'o.


Mutesi found fame by advancing through her country's chess ranks to eventually become a chess master, and the movie introduces her as a 10-year-old, when she is taken under the wing of Robert Katende (Oyelowo), a qualified engineer who, due to a lack of employment opportunities, takes a part-time job with a sports ministry. A lover of chess, Katende introduces Mutesi to the game, which she takes an instant shine to, despite the discouragement of the more well-off kids who mock her humble ways.

Under the coaching of Katende, Mutesi wins tournament after tournament, beating boys and girls with ease, amassing an array of trophies in the shack she shares with her world weary mother, Nakku (Nyong'o), who fears Katende is merely teasing her daughter with a taste of a world she can never ultimately be a part of.


Having lived in various corners of the British Commonwealth, including Uganda, Indian American filmmaker Mira Nair seems more qualified than most westerners to tell this tale, and while she may not be African, neither is she white, which gives her the advantage of being able to deliver a nuanced portrayal of Africans, just as righteous and flawed as the rest of us. Though the subject matter suggests a treatise on race and gender, this isn't the case; Mutesi is the same colour as her opponents, and nothing is made of her being a girl. She is however constantly made aware of her class status; her middle class opponents treat her with the same contempt many white westerners hold for Africans. That Mutesi barely reacts to such provocation, merely accepting it as a part of life, is heartbreaking.

In this way, Queen of Katwe is a positive portrayal of Africa, but also a brutally honest one. The residents of the titular slum aren't the holier than thou figures a guilt-ridden white filmmaker would likely have portrayed. When Mutesi is involved in a hospital, nobody rushes to her aid, a motorcyclist ultimately agreeing to take her to hospital, but only for payment.


While Queen of Katwe refuses to disguise the harsh nature of slum life, it's by no means a case of 'poverty porn', or what Johnny Lydon called a "cheap holiday in other people's misery". Despite their tough environment, Mutesi and her family are a generally happy lot; they're not asking for our sympathy, and neither is the film.

Where the movie lets itself down is in its superficial exploration of Mutesi the chess player. I've seen movies about basketball playing dogs that display more interest in basketball than Queen of Katwe shows in chess. The footage of Mutesi in competition mostly features her finishing moves, never bothering to educate us on what makes the young girl such a natural at the game. We never once see Katende actually coach his prodigy in the complex game, and her skill is passed off with the trite slogan "She's from the ghetto; she's a fighter". It's a gross disservice to the achievements of the real life Mutesi, and by focussing on her circumstances rather than her talent, Queen of Katwe is more than a little patronising.

Queen of Katwe is in cinemas October 21st.






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