Joyful ‘Queen of Katwe’ Tells Unlikely Story of a Girl From Ugandan Slums Who Became a World Famous Chess Player

Posted: Sep 23, 2016 11:00 AM

Phiona Mutesi’s story is one that was made for the silver screen. If you don’t know her, you may want to let “The Queen of Katwe” do the introductions. The film, out in limited theaters today and everywhere on September 30, tells the inspiring story of a young lady who learned how to play chess in the slums of Uganda – and became one of the most talented players in the country. Oh, and she did so based on instinct, considering she didn’t know how to read or write.

Phiona’s unlikely dream is displayed beautifully in the new Disney film. Newcomer Madina Nalwanga offers a vulnerable portrayal of the young woman whose quiet confidence propelled her to astonishing success.

Other notable performances come from the film’s two stars: Lupita Nyong’o and David Oyelowo. Nyong’o, who won an Oscar for her performance in “Twelve Years a Slave,” plays Phiona's mother Harriet. In the role, Nyong'o is able to capture Harriet's reluctant attitude toward her daughter's dream, and eventual change of heart. 

Oyelowo, known for his Golden Globe-nominated performance as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in "Selma," gives a heartwarming portrayal of Coach Robert Katende, who at times believed in Phiona’s dream even more than she did. In the role, Oyelowo is very animated and likable. He also happens to be a pretty convincing chess player.

The child actors in the film manage to steal several scenes of their own with their contagiously joyful performances as Phiona's teammates.

The chess scenes are surprisingly suspenseful and entertaining. You don’t have to be an expert on the game to enjoy them. For audience goers like me, who have never said “checkmate” in their life, trust me, you won’t be lost or bored.

While the movie is full of heartwarming moments, it does not shy away from the often brutal reality of life in the Ugandan slums. It depicts the abject poverty of many Ugandans and their daily desperation to find food. In one especially devastating scene, a natural disaster destroys the Mutesis’ home. 

These struggles, you’ll find, only make Phiona’s accomplishments that much sweeter.

Stay tuned for my interview with Nyong’o, who met with a handful of press in the nation's capital last week for "The Queen of Katwe" press tour.