PLOT- Queen of Katwe is based on the true story of Phiona Mutesi ( played by newcomer, Madina Nalwanga), a child living with her mother Nakku (Lupita Nyong'o) and siblings, in the slums of Katwe in Uganda. At ten years old, Phiona cannot read and is not attending school, as she must sell maize to help support her family. Phiona meets Robert Katende ( David Oyelowo), who is working as a missionary, helping the children living in the slums. Robert, a former orphan, teaches the children chess and quickly realizes that Phiona has the potential to be a grandmaster.
LIKE- There is much to love about Queen of Katwe. The story is inspirational and Phiona is a winning protagonist from the start. This is a story about good people with the odds stacked against them. It's often heartbreaking, which makes the victories so much sweeter.
The most compelling character is Phiona's mom, Nakku. Nakku is struggling to just survive in the slums, always one step away from losing everything. Her husband has died, leaving her with four children and no money. She is seen as proud, for refusing to seek out a man to help her situation. Her teenage daughter, Night (Taryn Kyaze) sees her best survival option as running away with an older man, which creates a huge divide in the family and further strains their resources. Nakku does not initially trust Robert, as he tries to help Phiona and Phiona's brother, Richard, not only with teaching them chess, but ultimately with getting them into school. Nakku eventually realizes that there is more than one way to help her family, and that she must place trust in others. The storyline of Phiona's family is equal to the chess storyline, and allows for a beautiful ending, where Nakku's sacrifices and love are honored.
Other primary themes are economic disparity and gender bias. All of the kids in the slum face classism when they encounter wealthier kids, both from Africa and other continents, at tournaments. There is a deep sense of shame and questioning of self-worth, that the kids must fight. Phiona and the other female chess players, experience gender bias, both within their own chess club and at tournaments. There is a powerful scene when Phiona beats a male player in her club and immediately apologizes to him. Robert gives her a talk about not apologizing for a fair win. I suspect this female apologizing is something that girls in many cultures are raised to do. I'm certainly guilty of it, it's an automatic response. I love how this was handled.
Nyong'o and Oyelowo are well-known, respected actors, so of course they're excellent, but holding their own is the large group of children, most making their acting debut. I think casting newcomers is what really makes Queen of Katwe, as the kids come across as real and unpolished, lending authenticity to the film. I read that Nalwanga was discovered by the casting director in a dance class and had actually grown up selling maize in a slum, using her experience to inform other cast members on set. She absolutely shines as the lead. The best moment was watching her experience a plane ride and snow for the first time. It's magical. All of the kids are great, but I have to give a special mention to Nikita Waligwa who plays Gloria, one of the younger children in the chess club. She's absolutely adorable and a screen stealer, especially when paired in a chess tournament against a large male competitor.
I absolutely loved the end credits, where the real life people were shown along side the actors that played them. It was a nice touch!
DISLIKE- There is one story element in the Queen of Katwe, that I didn't feel was throughly explained. It drove me nuts. Phiona's family is constantly struggling for money, always on the cusp of starvation and losing their home, every cent counts; so how did Nakku manage when Phiona and Richard were away at chess tournaments? It was glossed over.
RECOMMEND- Absolutely. Queen of Katwe is a remarkable true story, one that everyone should watch. I'm not sure that it would be a good pick for very young children, but certainly excellent for older elementary/middle school and older.