Why You And Everyone You Love Need To See 'Queen of Katwe'
Words: Anthonia Akitunde
The new Disney movie about a Ugandan chess phenom and her family is a must see.
There is something about being in a room full of Black people watching something that speaks to our experience. We laugh harder, we nod knowingly through our tears, we lean into the stranger sitting next to us as if they’re an old friend when they crack a particularly good joke at some on-screen hater’s expense... There’s something therapeutic about witnessing Blackness play out on screens big and small together.
I recently had that experience during a screening of Disney’s Queen of Katwe, presented by natural lifestyle influencer Hey Fran Hey. The biopic tells the story of chess master Phiona Mutesi, played by Madina Nalwanga. Phiona is a 10-year-old girl living in a slum of Kampala, Uganda called Katwe with her single mother Harriet (played by Lupita Nyong’o who just stays radiant), fast older sister Night, and two younger brothers Brian and Richard. (Phiona’s father and another sibling have died before we meet the Mutesi family.)
Unable to afford school fees and uniforms, Phiona spends her days trying to help her mother support the family by selling corn to people sitting in Kampala’s traffic. Her conception of the world is limited to what’s in front of her: an extreme, sprawling poverty that one can only escape through education and connections or by riding off on a man’s motorcycle (the option her sister has chosen, much to Harriet’s anger).
But Phiona’s world starts to get a little bigger when she follows her brother Brian to a chess club ran by Robert Katende (Selma’s David Oyelowo). Katende is a big-hearted former soccer player with the education to become an engineer, but unfortunately not the connections. While waiting to hear back from a potential job that could help him provide for his young family, Robert starts up a chess club for Katwe’s youth, feeding the children porridge and teaching them a game they don’t need wealth to play—or beat—the rich, educated kids who sneer at them.
Though Phiona originally came for the free food, she soon finds that something else inside of her is being fed as she learns the game. She’s a natural, first beating the top players in her club and then in local meets around the country and continent. Realizing her potential to become a world-renowned chess master, Robert becomes a mentor and surrogate father to Phiona as she begins to want more than the life she’s known with her mother in Katwe. But can her skill actually do anything for her family when they’re faced with poverty, eviction, poor health, and natural disasters that destroy what little they do have?
Queen of Katwe follows a typical sports movie arch—hero with natural talent discovers their gift, hero starts their climb to the top, hero falls, hero gets back up again with the help of loved ones and realizes their dream—but it feels so much more than that. The stakes are a lot higher than a gold medal or international acclaim. Phiona’s story is an embodiment of a fable Robert tells his students when they want to quit before playing in their first tournament, too afraid to play against the rich students and in front of the adults who've made them feel less than. A dog sees a cat who he thinks would make a very tasty lunch. The dog goes after the cat, chasing it all over the place, but the cat gets away. Why? “I was running for my lunch," the dog says, "but he was running for his life.” Phiona is like the cat too, running toward the one thing she can do to help her overwhelmed mother and siblings. She wants it more, and needs it more, than those she encounters.
I can go on and on about this movie, but I wanted to share a few more reasons why Queen of Katwe is a must-see.
Harriet Is A Mother’s Love Personified
We need to make room for Harriet in the list of great Black mothers of film. Lupita’s Harriet is full of the cutting eyes, sucked teeth, and snappy comebacks that are common in the Strong Black Woman archetype, but there’s also a vulnerability that comes through in moments where we see her devotion for her children confront the realities of being incredibly poor without a safety net.
Harriet is a woman driven by two things: survival and the need to protect her children. It doesn’t make her seem like the warmest mom, but every action she takes is with them in mind. (When a woman tells Harriet she should take up with a man to help her make rent, her refusal probably had just as much to do with not putting anyone above her children as her pride.) She isn’t a woman who lets herself dream because of life’s hardships, which makes her reluctant to let Phiona pursue chess. But when Harriet finally gets onboard, she gets in her best outfit and is the first one to stand up and cheer for Phiona’s wins.
The Kids Are Adorable
The kids who make up the Katwe chess club are just so fun to watch. All of their emotions are written on their little faces, and the way they play the dozens with their teammates and opponents is hilarious.
There Are So Many Moments Of Wisdom
No matter what you’re going through right now, there’s a line in Queen of Katwe—usually delivered by Oyelowo’s Robert—that will speak directly to that experience and inspire you. I lost count of how many “we gon’ be alright” speeches were given that personally moved me, but my favorite is when Robert tells a worried Phiona “the place you are used to is not the place you belong.”
The “Where Are The Now?” Reveal Is Everything
Every based-on-a-true-story movie does their version of a “where are they now,” an update given before the end credits to let viewers know what has happened since the events committed to film. What Queen of Katwe does at the end of the movie is just so touching—the entire theater was saying “awwwwww!” You have to see it for yourself.
Queen of Katwe is in theaters now. What did you think of the movie? Tell us in the comments.