The Queen of Katwe

A story of empowerment

The Queen of Katwe could be your typical sports triumph movie: a coach discovers an unusual talent who wins with amazing skill, overcomes major hardships, considers quitting after a setback, but in the end wins it all. Director Mira Nair, however, uses this true story with its setting in Uganda to create a larger tale.

She asks Katende where her safe spaces are, like those he has taught her to look for on the chess board. She studies chess and practices endlessly as she pursues her dream to become a master.

It is a story of triumph, and I couldn’t help cheering the whole way, but I became engaged in other ways as well. Beyond victory, it becomes a story of survival and empowerment for young protagonist, Phiona. Madina Nalwanga, a young Ugandan, is phenomenal in this role. Phiona assists her widowed mother, Nakku Harriet (Lupita Nyong’o, Twelve Years a Slave), in selling corn at a village food stand and in the streets to support the family. Her father left them with next to no financial resources, so they live in not much more than a tent. They are only one step away from homelessness. Nakku refuses to take another man just to make it easier to survive in this slum. But Phiona’s older sister, Night, chooses to go off with a man who has a motorcycle. He may be just a pimp, but we are never sure. Men are seen as a way to a slightly better life, but also risky one, since they may abandon you.

Robert Katende (David Oyelowo, Selma) accepts a job in a church mission in the slum while he waits for an engineering job to open up. He is a soccer player, so naturally he begins to get many of the young boys involved in soccer. He notes that some of the young boys aren’t allowed to play, and investigates. Their families can’t afford to take the risk of them being injured during the game. The families could not afford to pay for medical care.

That sparks the idea to start a chess club, which is safe but also teaches about life. Phiona watches through the cracks in the door as the children play chess and get a cup of porridge. The other children make fun of her smell, but she is captivated by the game. She latches onto the idea that if you get your little one to the other side of the board it becomes big and powerful. Katende discovers that Phiona can see many moves ahead in the game and is developing amazing skills.

The next roadblock for Katende is to get his charges into some tournaments. With a little convincing he gets them into a tournament of private school children, who obviously expect to win. He pits Phiona against their top player. After a few hesitant moments, she gets to work and wins the tournament. This is the first of many she wins. Of course, along the way Katende and his wife, who is a teacher, help Phiona learn to read and to get the other children into school as well.

Nair is careful to be sure we notice the strength of the mother, who, despite missing her husband, being uneducated, and facing daily challenges, never gives up. She goes face-to-face with the guy who comes to pick up Night and challenges Katende to not give her children false dreams. She is unsure of these opportunities offered to Phiona to travel to tournaments, for she understands that Phiona may find it difficult to live in the slum when she returns.

Phiona realizes she has limited options and muses that soon the men will start to pay attention to her, as they do to her sister, and she will have to make choices about how to survive. She asks Katende where her safe spaces are, like those he has taught her to look for on the chess board. She studies chess and practices endlessly as she pursues her dream to become a master.

The Queen of Katwe is a film worth seeing on several counts; it is filmed in Uganda, all the main characters are black, the triumphant person is a girl. All of these are unusual, and we should celebrate them. Make sure you stay for the credits, since they offer the opportunity to see the real people stand beside the actors who portrayed them.

This is a recent story, so many of the children are still in school. I suggest that you also take note of the number of them that now live with the family of Robert Katende. At the midpoint of the film, Katende is offered an engineering job with substantial pay, and he turns it down. When he tells his wife, she responds that she is glad to have married a man who would do the right thing and continue to work with the children of Katwe. Along with being inspired, we just might be challenged about our own choices.


The Queen of Katwe is rated PG.


All reviews express the opinions of the reviewer, not necessarily the views of Third Way.