Starring: Madina Nalwanga, David Oyelowo and Lupita Nyong’o
September 23, 2016 (Canada)/September 30, 2016 (USA)
“In chess, the small one can become the big one.”
I cried like a goddamn baby.
I cried happy tears. I cried sad tears. I cried when I was excited. I felt myself being cleansed from the week’s stresses and emerged lighter after watching Queen of Katwe.
It’s based on the true story of Phiona Mutesi whose life changes when she begins playing chess. A prodigy living in the life of poverty is not a new story, but it’s a story that we all love. To watch someone pull themselves out of a life much smaller than their potential is moving. I cried because I was watching a story set in Africa, specifically in the country of Uganda, that offers a diverse view of the region. It gave us rich kids, the middle class, and the poor all within one nation that is not at war. It gives us a family that is struggling, but who aren’t hemmed in by the generic constraints of tragedy porn. They laugh, dance, and find joyful moments.
It’s an inspiring story featuring black people, and although Phiona couldn’t have achieved what she does on her own, there is not a single white saviour to be found. Madina Nalwanga, who plays Phiona, is one to watch, because she carried this effortlessly. David Oyelowo was fabulous as her mentor, and his scenes with his onscreen wife played by Esther Tebandeke were ones I looked forward to. And Lupita? Lupita Nyong’o acted with her whole body. She conveyed the fierceness and love that Phiona’s mother had for her children effortlessly. She reminded us why she won that Oscar. I must also mention the other children, like Brian, Richard, Joseph, Gloria, Benjamin and Ivan, who added to the film’s charm and humour.
In her article “My Africa,” featured in October’s 2016 Vogue issue, Lupita talks about why it was important for her to take on roles in productions, like Eclipsed and Queen of Katwe. It was “to change the narrative” and “offer a new lens on African beauty.” The film did that. It also explores what happens when you give someone like Phiona the taste of what a better life could look like, and in spite of her skills, it’s out of reach because of the barriers in place, like access to money. Lupita’s character described it as being like a ghost. Wanting to fit into that other world, but being unable to and yet also unable to continue living in the world you thought you were content with. That’s what makes this particular story so engaging, of someone small becoming someone much bigger than they could have imagined.
“Sometimes the place you are used to is not the place you belong. You belong where you believe you belong.”
I highly recommend watching this film and maybe even picking up the book, The Queen of Katwe: One Girl’s Triumphant Path to Becoming a Chess Champion. It’ll probably make you cry, but it’ll be good for you.