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'Queen of Katwe' Might Checkmate Your Heart

When we hear stories or see images of Africa, they typically depict poverty, disease, war and struggle.

A contrast to that image is Disney’s “Queen of Katwe," directed by Mira Nair, which brings to light the rise of Uganda’s top chess champion and her mentor. The story of Phiona Mutesi and Robert Katende dominated the celebrated Toronto International Film Festival and has found its way to the top of box offices worldwide.

The film focuses on the life of Mutesi, who lives in poverty in Katwe, a slum in Kampala, Uganda. Nair’s film follows the journey of Mutesi as she discovers a love for chess.

Aside from Phiona, the film focused on her mentor, Katende, who also grew up in the slums of Katwe. Katende studied engineering in college and developed a youth sports club, where the two met. Katende was portrayed by David Oyelowo ("Selma"), and Phiona by newcomer Madina Nalwanga, who grew up in Katwe. Academy Award-winner Lupita Nyong’o plays her mother, Harriet Nakku.

The real Robert Katende (L) and Phiona Mutesi (R), at "Queen of Katwe" premiere in Hollywood, California, Sept. 20, 2016.
The real Robert Katende (L) and Phiona Mutesi (R), at "Queen of Katwe" premiere in Hollywood, California, Sept. 20, 2016.

Critics criticized Disney and Nair for following what they thought was “a predictable underdog story" ( The film ranked 91 percent on Rotten Tomatoes “Tomatometer," an overall 7.3 out of 10, and still dominated theaters upon it’s release.

The film received mixed reviews. Daniel Barnes of the Sacramento News & Review criticizes the film for being “another dreadfully well-intended, insipidly inspirational sports movie from Disney.”

But many, like Dana Stevens of Slate, praise the film for going beyond Disney standards. “Queen of Katwe's originality comes not in its story, but in its setting, explored by Nair with her usual skill at establishing a sense of place.”

“Queen of Katwe,” illustrates the story many others are afraid to show. The actors and director were able to perfectly put to screen the connection between Phiona and Robert, as well as her mother's resistence. When interviewed at the Los Angeles premier of the film, Mutesi said about her mother:

"I don't blame her for what she was doing because of where we were living. 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."

Mutesi must deal with the conflict of rising above her roots and life in Katwe.

While feelings were mixed, it is hard not to deny that the overall film, Mutesi's compelling story, Nair directing and the actors portrayals made the film stand out among Disney's past productions and create a buzz. Mutesi's story won hearts worldwide.

This story was first reported by

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