“The film runs long, but so does its impact.”

by Steve Pulaski

Queen of Katwe‘s arrival into theaters nationwide comes not only in conjunction with a slew of other potential awards contenders, but as a breath of air refreshing as the kind the fall season itself brings. In a time where the common-good of humanity is seriously questionable and those who are supposed to guide and lead us appear as nothing more than manipulative and divisive, Queen of Katwe inspires as it captivates, telling us a story we may have never heard about but one we’ll probably never forget.

At its core, the film tells the story of Phiona Mutesi (Madina Nalwanga), a young African girl living in an impoverished Ugandan village with her mother Harriet (Lupita Nyong’o) and several younger brothers, who came from nothing to become a chess champion. Taken under the wing of soccer coach Robert Katende (David Oyelowo), Phiona was determined from the get-go to hone her skills and get her family out of their current situation, but not in a conventional way. Every time she was faced with a chessboard and its respective pieces, while her opponent might’ve been thinking one or two moves into the future, Phiona could basically foresee seven or eight moves. She’d trap her opponents so that they couldn’t maneuver their pieces to safety no matter how hard they tried or sweated. She was that good.

We watch as Phiona grows and matures, in addition to other young boys of the community like the spunky Mugabi (Martin Kabanza). But no matter where the story takes us, like a compass, it returns to the central focal point of Phiona, as it should. This is important because not only is Phiona’s story the most powerful and impacting one on display, but Madina Nalwanga is such a strong young actress with a large weight on her shoulders to magnify this important role. She doesn’t misstep and is consistently wonderful here.

Queen of Katwe
Directed by
Mira Nair
Madina Nalwanga, David Oyelowo, Lupita Nyong’o
Release Date
30 October 2016
Steve’s Grade: B

Oyelowo and Nyong’o also show that they can handle roles with hints of ambiguity. Consider Oyelowo’s Robert character and the dilemma he faces of having to monitor and coach numerous children, yet give them enough space to think and feel, so as not to dictate their interests. Nyong’o’s Harriet, however, takes a different route and one that is logical in the eyes of her character and that’s to continue to affirm to her children the value of hardwork. Sure, chess could potentially lift them out of their current situation, but as of right now, the likelihood of paying for championship competitions and special schooling is highly unlikely and food needs to find its way on the table. And it won’t do so by playing board games.

Directress Mira Nair brings a lot of life to this small, Ugandan community, while writer William Wheeler never makes the film about anything other than the characters. There are no outside forces, and similar to this year’s Southside with You, there’s no reliance on generalizations or common tropes typically found in films with predominately black casts. It all feels warm and authentic, bold and genuine, and even Disney’s occasionally sanitized, picturesque cinematography can’t disguise the rare moments of true human power here.

The film runs long, but so does its impact. The film can feel a bit heavy on pathos, but we deserve to feel something while watching this. Petty complaints for Queen of Katwe can be shaken off a lot easier than they could be in other films because this is a picture we needed and received in a timely manner. Now to all those people that demanded a film like this get made, it’s time for you to make a trip to the movies.