Sometimes you watch a film and it’s amazing. You love it. You think everyone should see it because it’s so gosh-darn close to perfect. But when you mention it to friends, to family, (and colleagues, and pets, and anyone else you talk to)… they’ve never even heard of it.
It’s a strange experience. When it happens to me, I tend to go full medieval doomsayer, urging every individual unfortunate enough to cross my path to seek out this incredible film, if only so that I have someone to talk to about it. It doesn’t happen often, and it takes a very special sort of film to elicit this kind of response – a film that you truly feel needs to be shared.
Disney’s Queen of Katwe is one such film. Directed by Mira Nair, it tells the remarkable true story of Ugandan chess prodigy Phiona Mutesi, a teenager from one of Kampala’s poorest areas whose life was transformed by her talent and determination. Despite extremely positive reactions from critics and audiences alike (it has a Rotten Tomatoes approval rating of 93% and 87% respectively), this film came and went from cinemas without making much of a splash. Like The Shawshank Redemption, Citizen Kane, and It’s a Wonderful Life before it, something tells me that this is a film people will come to love on home media.
Because frankly, Queen of Katwe is brilliant.
At the beginning of the film we find Phiona selling maize at a local market. She’s a happy child, but financial strain hangs heavily over her family home despite her mother’s hardest efforts. Lured by the promise of free food, Phiona attends a chess class run by a local missionary and quickly discovers the appeal of a game in which “the pawn can become the queen”. As Phiona’s skill quickly progresses, she realises that her aptitude opens the door to a new life – a life outside Katwe.
Frankly, this film is fantastic, telling Phiona’s inspiring story with honesty and wit whilst also confronting the social issues which face our protagonist. Her against-the-odd victories are exhilarating punch-the-air moments, but we never lose sight of the fact that her disadvantage is the consequence of the wealth and class divisions present in society. It’s a heart-breaking moment when Phiona looks set to give up on her dreams of success because she can’t afford the coaching her rivals are able to, and her fear of being commodified and objectified as a woman entering adulthood is horrifying. Nevertheless, Nair maintains a family-friendly feel to the film, balancing the darker scenes with laugh-out-loud moments of comedy and touching displays of companionship which provide constant rays of joy and hope.
Newcomer Nadina Malwanga charms and dazzles as the titular character, providing an astonishingly naturalistic performance which feels real and immediate. Similarly, David Oyelowo is wonderful as her kindly coach, Robert Katende, who is torn between encouraging Phiona’s abilities and feeling hugely guilty for turning her life (and her family’s lives) upside down. But it’s Lupita Nyong’o’s incredible performance as Harriet, Phiona’s mother, that binds this film together. A proud, stubborn, enigmatic figure, Harriet’s love and responsibility for her children burns brightly in every scene, and it’s on the fiery relationship between her and Phiona that the focus of the film comes to rest.
Hope, humour, an inspirational real-life story fleshed out with characters that you truly care about, Queen of Katwe has it all. It’s a crowd-pleasing, cheer-inducing, warm hug of a film which is sure to bring a smile to your cheek and a tear to your eye. With many of us using lockdown to catch up with films-we’ve-always-meant-to-watch-but-never-quite-got-around-to, it’s the ideal time to discover this underrated gem and give it the attention it deserves.
Put it to the top of your watchlist. You’ll love it.
Queen of Katwe is available on Disney+