Feminist February may be in its 3rd year(?!?!?!), but that doesn’t mean it’s too late for firsts. This week’s film is our first Disney feature on the Blog Collab, first set in Uganda, and first (and probably last) all about chess. Definitely not the first to make me cry an embarrassing number of times.
Queen of Katwe
The true story of Phiona Mutesi, a Ugandan girl who rose quickly to become a chess master.
For those of you, like me, who always want to know what a title means–Katwe is a slum in Uganda’s capital, Kampala, where Phiona grows up. One of four children, Phiona takes care of her younger siblings and sells maize to support the family. Since her father died, Phiona’s single mother, Nakku (Lupita Nyong’o!!!), struggles to keep the family together and under a roof. Phiona’s older sister, Night, has had enough and takes off with her scooter riding boyfriend. After this act of rebellion, Night helps the family financially but is essentially dead to her mother.
Meanwhile, Robert Katende (David Oyelowo!) is an engineer searching for a job in Kampala. When he discovers all of the engineering jobs are completely about who you know rather than what you know, he must settle for a part-time gig as a coach with a small ministry. Luckily, the family has a second string as his wife Sara is an elementary school teacher.
In Robert’s chest beats the tender heart of a chess nerd, and his passion project with the ministry is trying to get all the kids hooked on chess. He hopes to develop the talents of his pupils in order to show the privileged what they can achieve. No unresolved childhood issues there at all.
Enter Phiona, stage right. When she stumbles upon the chess club in action (and gets free food–possibly the only reason I’d ever stick around for chess), Phiona decides to try playing despite some of the kids being little assholes who tease her for being dirty. Though initially confused by the many rules of the game (I’m there with you, girl), with practice Phiona learns to master the game–even winning against the group’s current champion. In a scenario that feels way too real, Phiona actually feels bad about winning and apologizes for it.
Soon, Robert figures out a way around the snobby prep school’s efforts to exclude the team from a chess championship. However, it turns out stuck-up rich kids are the least of his problems when Phiona’s mother finds out what she and her brother have been up to. Suspecting ulterior motives and fearing her children will be unable to earn money for the family, Nakku forbids them from playing chess again. That is, until Robert promises he will find a way to get them into school if they’re allowed to play.
I think it’s no spoiler to tell you that the rich kids are absolute douches and Phiona wins against the smug little assholes. Still, she doubts her abilities and believes she only won because her opponent let her.
Nevertheless, things seem to be falling into place until Phiona’s brother is in a terrible accident, the family is left without money, and they are evicted from their home. Phiona also starts to realize the injustice of the chess world. Though she has beaten players with the world-class mentors, she goes back to a dissatisfying existence where mundane chores take precedence over the exciting(?) game of chess. Despairing of her life, Phiona belongs neither in Katwe nor among the wealthy.
After a series of wins, Phiona is determined to continue playing chess–and, vitally, to make money from it. She and Robert travel to Russia to compete professionally, which may help her earn a stipend to support her family. However, things do not go as planned, and a disappointed Phiona is ready to give up. When the rainy season washes away their home, the fraught relationship between Nakku and Night reaches a boiling point, and Robert faces a difficult career decision, does this mean the end of Phiona’s dreams?
Clearly not or it wouldn’t be a Disney film.
4/5 Pink Panther Heads
I wouldn’t call this a new favorite, but it has a stellar cast, a fairly action-packed plot (for a film about chess), and a genuine heart holding it all together. Thematically, this has a lot in common with Billy Elliot, though the PG rating and Phiona’s set of challenges take a different angle (and there are significantly fewer songs by the Jam in this one). I am ridiculously susceptible to crying at inspirational speeches, and David Oyelowo has more than his share. Damnit, dude.
Phiona (and Madina Nalwanga in her first film role?!??!) in particular is a wonderful character to watch, with a quiet determination tempered with a realistic amount of self-doubt, commitment to duty, and frustration. We are of course rooting for her the whole time, but the film doesn’t gloss over the limitations that poverty, gender, and geography place on her ability to succeed. Nakku is also incredibly sympathetic as a mother whose concern is the survival of her family–even if that means settling for a less than ideal future. As a single mother with no interest in remarrying, Nakku is fucking fierce and a genius at survival.
I want Lupita Nyong’o to adopt me and David Oyelowo to be my life coach. Or I could just bring them coffee, whatever.