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‘Queen of Katwe’: From the Slums to Chess Olympiads

  • Penelope Poulou

Most films about Africa offer a stark picture of a war-torn continent. Mira Nair's “Queen of Katwe” is a celebration of the human spirit, the story of a young girl from a slum in Uganda's capital city turned chess champion. Based on a true story, the film boasts a stellar cast with Lupita Nyong'o and David Oyelowo, and vibrant cinematography.

The film follows Walt Disney Pictures' traditional arc of the underdog: a poor teenage girl who escapes poverty through her intellect and perseverance. The story could be rather trite if it were not true.

The making of a champion

Phiona Mutesi, the second-eldest child of widowed Harriet Nakku, lives in deplorable conditions with her family and works in a food market. One day, coach Robert Katende, the heart and soul of a sports outreach program for underprivileged children in Kampala, invites her into the Pioneers club. He'd seen her peeking inside the sparsely furnished clubroom as kids played chess. Enticed by the game and the free porridge, she walks in and is introduced to the game that will make her famous.

FILE - Robert Katende (L) and Ugandan chess player Phiona Mutesi (R), who are portrayed in "Queen of Katwe," pose at the film's Los Angeles premiere in Hollywood, California, Sept. 20, 2016.

FILE - Robert Katende (L) and Ugandan chess player Phiona Mutesi (R), who are portrayed in "Queen of Katwe," pose at the film's Los Angeles premiere in Hollywood, California, Sept. 20, 2016.

The film drama capitalizes on Phiona's talents, but also on the relationship between her and Katende, who, she learns, grew up in the same slums she calls home and worked his way to the university where he studied engineering.

Phiona not only has to train to gain the knowledge and skill that would hone her natural talent in chess and turn her into a grandmaster, she also has to tackle the social, economic and gender prejudice stacked against her.

The dramatized script offers some clichéd inspirational dialogue, but Oyelowo's delivery as coach Katende elevates the rather pedantic writing. So, when he tells an incredulous Phiona that "sometimes the place you are used to, it is not the place you belong. You belong where you believe you belong," one sees the difference a great actor makes.

Opening night

At a star-studded September 13 event at Washington's Newseum, Oyelowo spoke about the film's uplifting depiction of Africa.

"Often when we see films coming out of Africa right now, it's child soldiers, it's dictators, it's poverty, it's disease," he told VOA. "But we very rarely get to see these positive images, we rarely get to see the self-possession of the people, the fact that they can take care of themselves from within, they don't need help necessarily from without."

FILE - Actors Lupita Nyong'o (L), Madina Nalwanga (C) and David Oyelowo laugh after posing in the same manner as they appear on the movie poster seen behind him during the Los Angeles premiere of "Queen of Katwe" in Hollywood, California, Sept. 20, 2016.

FILE - Actors Lupita Nyong'o (L), Madina Nalwanga (C) and David Oyelowo laugh after posing in the same manner as they appear on the movie poster seen behind him during the Los Angeles premiere of "Queen of Katwe" in Hollywood, California, Sept. 20, 2016.

Another significant presence on film is Academy Award-winner Nyong'o, who plays Phiona's disenchanted mother, Harriet.

"She has to learn that in order to really love her daughter, she has to learn to let her go and risk failure, and that is how Phiona ends up being the champion that she becomes," Nyong'o said. She, too, sees the significance of the film as a positive portrait for Uganda, and Africa at large.

The real Robert Katende and Phiona Mutesi also attended the event. The chess champion defended her mother who, in the beginning, was mistrustful of the coach and the game of chess.

"I don't blame her for what she was doing because of where we were living," Mutesi said. "She tried to protect me because there still is a lot of raping, so she couldn't allow me to go out of the house. But then she allowed me to go out and start practicing. Right now, she is so happy with whatever is going on, she is excited."

Today, Mutesi of Uganda is a chess grandmaster and has participated in two international chess Olympiads.

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