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Forgotten Films: 'Queen of Katwe'


Published August 21, 2020 at 2:14 p.m.

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This week’s featured film is Queen of Katwe, directed by Mira Nair and released in 2016. Although it is a more recent release, it was a box office disappointment and snubbed at awards ceremonies, including the Oscars and Golden Globes. That’s a shame, because the film is incredibly well-directed, acted and written. Additionally, unlike previous films I’ve written about, it’s based on a true story, which may be appealing to families looking for an inspiring tale about a part of the world they may not know much about.

The Story: In an impoverished area of Uganda called Katwe, the recently widowed Nakku Harriet (Lupita Nyong’o) struggles to raise and provide for her multiple children. In Katwe, money is tough to come by for a single mother. One of Harriet’s daughters, 10-year old Phiona (Madina Nalwanga), yearns for a better future, one in which she doesn’t have to sell maize forever. She meets chess teacher Robert Katende (David Oyelowo) and discovers she is chess prodigy. Under Katende’s mentorship, Phiona wins multiple tournaments and earns her way to represent the Uganda team in the Chess Olympiad. With this newfound success comes other concerns, such as financial hardships associated with chess tournaments and Phiona’s developing overconfidence.

Why it’s a Good Family Movie: Queen of Katwe is an inspiring underdog tale with a charming cast. Phiona is not just from the slum, but at the bottom of it, and is constantly ridiculed and underestimated. Even the poor children who are on her chess team initially make fun of her economic standing and criticize her smell. When she gets good enough to play against the city kids, they are bigoted, wiping their hands on the tablecloth after they shake her hand and constantly making rude, condescending remarks throughout the game. Phiona is an inspirational character in the sense that she is able to overcome these hardships and show up the others with chess prowess. In the beginning of the film when she is being taught how to play, a character remarks that the pawn (the little one) is able to become the big one (the queen). While this is in reference to chess, it is also an inspiring message for Phiona — and the source of the clever double meaning in the film’s title.

Queen of Katwe is also a great film in narrating actual events that took place in Africa. The film educates viewers on the struggles people experience in the poorer sections of this country and also showcases Ugandan culture in a respectful, realistic way. Oftentimes Hollywood movies, like The Constant Gardener and Machine Gun Savior, have a “white savior” narrative when depicting African stories. This movie depicts African people as their own heroes, without a single white savior in sight.

Finally, I must praise some of the technical aspects of this film. Mira Nair and the cinematographer, Sean Bobbit, have crafted a very beautiful film. Colors in the film are vivid and impactful. Additionally, the acting is exceptional, with David Oyelowo and Lupita Nyong’o being particular standouts in their roles. Chess can be a boring activity to watch, but Mira Nair has the rare ability to create tension and make the game feel mesmerizing, even to those who aren’t chess buffs.

Age Recommendation: This film is relatively tame in the violence department. Besides a kid getting hit by a motorcycle and the pain and injuries associated with being hit, there’s nothing else that could be considered violent or gory. There are many references to prostitution in the film, with multiple slimy male characters making disturbing references. However, the innuendoes would likely go over younger children’s heads. I would recommend this film for ages 9 and up.

Queen of Katwe is available for streaming on Disney+ and available to rent or purchase on iTunes and Amazon.

This article was originally published in Seven Days' monthly parenting magazine, Kids VT.