Review: Queen of Katwe

Madina Nalwanga plays a girl from the slums whose life is changed by chess

Based on a true story, Queen of Katwe is a classic and inspiring tale of overcoming extreme adversity to pursue and achieve dreams, against all odds and in the unlikeliest of circumstances.

Set against a backdrop of an impoverished Uganda over the last five years, the film chronicles recent events as they unfolded.

Directed by Mira Nair, the film begins in 2011 then goes back to 2008 where this journey begins, delivering a raw and uplifting insight into the trials and triumphs of life in poverty-stricken Africa.

The heart of the story is believing in and achieving dreams, winning and celebrating accomplishments that initially seem impossible and out of one’s league.

The cinematography and storyline capture and display the despair and disappointment of life when born into poverty, while contrasting that imagery with the way the privileged and well-off in Africa live.

It shows that dreams and hopes are not exclusive to the wealthy: courage, determination and strength are in all hearts. Success will come to those who believe in themselves enough to chase their goals.

It is a story where persistence, encouragement, support, trust and letting go can bridge the divide between two seemingly distant worlds.

The essence of African life is family. Queen of Katwe shows how even when all seems futile, love, closeness and family unity are life’s greatest blessings.

Family also provides the greatest impetus to keep trying and is the foundation where one draws their strength and determination to work hard and scale the heights of success so that one day it is possible to give back to those who sacrificed so much.

Phiona Mutesi, played by Madina Nalwanga, is the main character.

It was sheer coincidence that led young Phiona to come across the shack where young children were playing chess.

It was also fierce will and a generous heart from the coach that let her join in and learn the game, excel at it and inspire others.

That initial experience in itself presented challenges for Phiona but she was able to overcome her fears and demonstrate a remarkable strength of character and resilience and return to the shack and join the team, known as the Pioneers.

Over time, she demonstrates a remarkable sharpness of mind and strategic aptitude to win multiple tournaments, once she conquers her self-doubt and insecurities.

As the coach, Robert Katende played by David Oyelowo tells Phiona, when things go wrong, reset the pieces and start over. Don’t give up.

He tells her to begin with a plan and identify the threats and dangers and then work out a strategy to ensure she is not trapped.

These were sound words of advice for life as much as the game of chess from a coach and mentor who truly had her best interests at heart and wanted to see Phiona grow, succeed and go where she truly did belong.

The children lost their father at a very young age so their mother relied on the children to help her support the family and pay the rent.

The mother, Nakku Harriet, played by Lupita Nyong’o, was fiercely protective of her children and had no interest or time for education or far-fetched dreams of success and wealth or a path that might lead to disappointment or an inability to pay the bills.

But Nakku was able to also let go of her fears and summon the strength to conquer her own pride and misfortune to let Phiona go and achieve her dreams.

The main actors – Madina Nalwanga, David Oyelowo and Lupita Nyong’o – deliver outstanding performances.

All were authentic and true to Africa’s spirit, culture and connection to purpose and the identity and vibrant personality Africans possess.

The film is enthralling throughout and is thought-provoking, enchanting and interwoven with pearls of wisdom.

The music by Alex Heffes and the dancing was uplifting, revealing the true character of the Ugandans, that of a joyful spirit, resilient nature and happy hearts.

Many heartfelt moments leave the empathetic viewer in tears, while various scenes evoke feelings of extreme joy, despair, helplessness, relief and hope.

This movie has been scheduled for a Christmas-time release and suits the festive season’s spirit of goodwill, warmth, belief, hope, community and generosity perfectly.

It is an important story for older children and adults.

I believe we have not heard the last of young Phiona Mutesi who surely has an even brighter, successful and promising future ahead of her where she will continue to inspire and impress with her talent, warm spirit, inner strength and radiance.

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