Queen of Katwe




A feel-good film set in Uganda and one made with real confidence and warmth.


Queen of Katwe

David Oyelowo and Madina Nalwanga


In 1994 Steve James made Hoop Dreams an outstanding documentary about two African-Americans from Chicago whose lives were transformed through their ability at basketball. As its title indicates, Queen of Katwe is set not in America but in Uganda, and furthermore the game featured in it is not basketball but chess. Nevertheless, despite the fact that of Queen of Katwe is a mainstream work with actors, it is based on a true story and consequently it is fair to say that the two films are essentially companion pieces. Each shows black people finding through their endeavours a skilled activity that will enable them to rise above their social limitations.


The heroine of the new film is Phiona Mutesi who discovered chess for which she proved to possess an extraordinary flair before reaching her teens. Aided by a  devoted coach, Robert Katende, who taught chess to local children in Kampala, she would in time became a chess champion. Queen of Katwe, told in flashback, covers her life from 2007 to 2012. Growing up in dire poverty with a single mother, Harriet, and with several siblings (including one other who became adept at chess), Phiona is portrayed here not without weaknesses but even so as an inspirational figure due to her determination, a strength inherited from her mother.


Mira Nair's film is a feel-good movie shot in colour and ’Scope by Sean Bobbitt whose visuals in conjunction with the music track ensure that this is a colourful film but also one that captures the poverty-stricken setting. The story should appeal to both young and old and the first half of the film flows beautifully. Later on William Wheeler’s screenplay takes too many side-steps since at just over two hours the film does seem on the long side (one episode involving flooding and an extra thread about an older sister arguably hold up the movement of the main narrative). But that is a minor flaw and this engaging piece in popular style benefits, as one would expect, from the contributions of Selma’s David Oyelowo as the coach and of Lupita Nyong’o from 12 Years A Slave as the mother. The surprise here is that Madina Nalwanga, making her debut, is their equal: outstanding in the key role of Phiona, she suggests with admirable restraint and intelligence the way in which the initially naive 10-year-old would change and mature over the six years covered by the film.


As a footnote I would add that, although the end credits eventually incorporate visuals featuring an extraneous song, they also at the start incorporate personal appearances by those whose story we have been watching. This is quite charmingly done and the audience will miss a treat if they make for the exit the moment that the credits begin.  




Cast: David Oyelowo, Lupita Nyong'o, Madina Nalwanga, Martin Kabanza, Taryn 'Kay' Kyaze, Esther Tebandeke, Ntare Guma Mbaho Mwine, Ethan Nazario Lubega, Nikita Waligwa.

Dir Mira Nair, Pro Lydia Dean Pilcher and John Carls, Screenplay William Wheeler based on the ESPN magazine article and book by Tim Crothers, Ph Sean Bobbitt, Pro Des Stephanie Carroll, Ed Barry Alexander Brown, Music Alex Hoffes, Costumes Mobolaji Dawodu.

Disney/ESPN Films/John B. Carls/Cine Mosaic/Mirabai Films-Buena Vista International (UK).
124 mins. USA. 2016. Rel: 14 October 2016. Cert. PG