The best little movie you’ve never heard of

The best little movie you’ve never heard of

REVIEW: Queen of Katwe

(PG) David Oyelowo, Lupita Nyong’o, Madina Nalwanga


It is hard to imagine what the meeting was like when Queen of Katwe was pitched to prospective producers. The slums of Uganda, missionary outreach, and chess are not necessarily the most compelling story elements to consider for a big-budget film. But, after watching Queen of Katwe (which is based on a true story), you will see how well they work together to deliver a charming film of hope.

Life in the slums of Kampala, Uganda can be dark, depressing and dangerous. Phiona Mutesi (newcomer Madina Nalwanga) and her family have very little when it comes to physical possessions. But they do have one another to work through the tough times. Amid the desperate living conditions of dirt roads and shanty houses, mission workers strive to provide hope for the children of this community. Turns out that two things provide relief for the young ones — belief in God, and chess. It is hard to imagine that chess would become an escape for some of the children of Kampala, but it does.

Robert Katende (David Oyelowo) is a missionary who feeds the children and then teaches them how to play chess. Many become accomplished in their skills and see the shed where they play chess as a haven from the depressing world outside. Phiona discovers the small group and is intrigued by the game. She develops an affinity for the game of strategy and, under Robert’s coaching, finds herself thrown into the world of competitive chess. As she is exposed to the world outside of Kampala, she must come to terms with what she desires to do with the next move — to stay in Uganda or travel the world.

Award-winning director Mira Nair (Monsoon Wedding, Vanity Fair) takes on this unique concept and moulds an inspiring tale. She is able to draw out the humanity and realities of a world that most people would only see in commercials for charity groups such as UnitingWorld or Compassion. Many times, directors can strive to get the lead characters out of their impoverished atmosphere, but Nair chooses to show the strength of people who remain in the slums. She walks the fine line of not glamourising this world, while giving us insights into how it has helped to develop the character of the people who live in these surroundings. Nair’s skills as a documentary film-maker provid a refreshing and realistic view of Phiona’s life, by sharing her background and all that she has to experience in her short span of life.

Another element that adds to the delivery of this story is the combination of fresh new acting talent and premier African talent. In her acting debut, Madina Nalwanga convincingly handles the lead role with the needed innocence and confidence. She carries the wonder that comes from exposure to a new world of opportunities, but maintains the calm spirit that is needed in handling all that comes her way. David Oyelowo (Selma, A United Kingdom) provides the strength to be the father figure to the children in the slums, and Lupita Nyong’o (12 Years a Slave) is captivating as the matriarch who provides for and protects her family.

Only a limited release around Australia, Queen of Katwe is a welcome surprise among all the sequels and blockbusters. Hats off to Disney for allowing this little story out of Uganda to be brought to the big screen. This true-to-life story is suited for all age groups. It allows people of faith to be seen as adding value to communities around the world, as well as how they inspire people to utilise their gifts (to achieve the purpose they are on earth to achieve).

What are some of the bigger questions to consider from this film?

The love of a mother is a beautiful thing to see and experience. In the Queen of Katwe, Nakku Harriet proves that no mother is perfect, but that she is perfect for the situation and family that she has been given. It would be easy to focus on the the situations around this family, but the value of the film is to see the value of a mother’s love. Proverbs 31 gives us a glimpse into the value that women bring to the lives of their families. Showing that God has a beautiful purpose for the role of the mother.

Passages on the love of a mother: Proverbs 31, Isaiah 66:13, Titus 2:4


Russell Matthews works for City Bible Forum Sydney and is a film blogger


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