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‘Queen of Katwe’ Cries ‘Checkmate!’

A true story of an African child prodigy

Sep. 27, 2016
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Movies about child prodigies will always draw an audience, especially when based on a true story and involving triumph over adversity. Queen of Katwe occupies a special place for its true-life protagonist: an impoverished girl from Uganda who becomes a world chess champion. The film is also part of a gathering and overdue trend of major Hollywood releases starring black people in black stories.

Phiona (Madina Nalwanga) is a young girl growing up in Katwe, a vast slum of mud brick hovels and alleys paved in more mud. Her widowed mother is a strong-willed woman determined to hold her children together; they peddle cassava on the streets to pay the rent on a dirt-floored hovel with mattresses on the ground and no electricity. They are on a hard treadmill going nowhere—until Phiona is initiated into the world of chess by the soccer coach of a Christian charity, Robert (David Oyelowo). The coach worked his way through engineering school by playing chess for money. He forms a chess club to help teach the slum kids mental discipline and acuity, and with the vague hope that it might help some of them to rise from poverty. Phiona is his best pupil.

Chess lacks the visual dynamism of boxing or even tennis. It’s harder to build cinematic excitement around a cerebral contest than a fight in the ring, yet Queen of Katwe succeeds in putting human faces on the players, dramatizing their ambitions and explicating the intricacies of a game in which a pawn can overtake a king. Phiona’s gift for strategy (“One of your ancestors must have commanded great armies,” Robert tells her) is honed as she practices at night by the light of burning paraffin on a crudely drawn board with bottle caps for pieces. 

Once again, director Mira Nair, whose previous films include Salaam Bombay! and Mississippi Masala, displays an eye for the humanity in poverty, the hope in the ruin of dreams, as well as the character and color of a particular place. Drawn from the book on Phiona by American sports writer Tim Crothers, the screenplay tends to wrap desperation and triumph in neatly bowed packages, with a deus ex machina or two and, every few scenes, a new setback to overcome. The truth may be that the real-life Phiona persevered against her mother’s suspicion that Robert was up to no good, the barriers of Uganda’s class system and her lack of education to become a champion on a stage she never knew existed. A visually telling instance of culture clash occurs when Robert drives Phiona and the chess club to compete in Uganda’s national tournament at the country’s Ivy League college. He’s driving a rattletrap van that might have been new when Idi Amin ruled Uganda into the immaculate setting. Queen of Katwe captures the inspiration inherent in an underdog’s struggle to earn the gold.

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