I am always careful when recommending films. After all, audiences have varied tastes and different interests. I saw the newest Disney film, Queen of Katwe last week and was mesmerized by the richness of the story, the characters, the details. And I can't wait to tell you about it.
Based on the true story of 10 year old Phiona Mutesi, a sweetly innocent girl from the slum of Katwe in Kampala, Uganda. She owns nothing, can't read, and sells maize in the streets to try to help feed her family.
Her family includes two younger brothers, a sister, and a fiercely headstrong mother, Harriet (Lupita Nyong'o). Phiona and her brother, Brian (Martin Kabanza) meet a local sports ministry director named Robert Katende (David Oyelowo). It is Katende who realizes the local slum kids he's working with aren't going to compete in football (soccer), he decides to teach them another game he loves: chess.
As the story unfolds and Phiona becomes more and more adept at mastering the game, we learn right along with her that chess is indeed the great equalizer when it comes to issues of class, education, and income. It can be played by anyone in the world. Katende takes notice that this young girl from the slum of Katwe has a special gift, especially when she starts to beat him.
Phiona's story is fascinating on its own, and newcomer Madina Nalwanga wins our hearts as she wins her tournaments. Her story does not feel at all contrived. We start rooting for her early on and feel for her when her success makes her feel out of sorts in the slum where her family lives.
Lupita Nyong'o as Harriet, Phiona's mother, keeps the movie from turning into the sentimental cliche it could potentially be. Under the masterful direction of Mira Nair ("Monsoon Wedding"), it's not just a feel-good movie, but truly inspirational and completely genuine. Watching her nuanced performance - a glance here, a sharper tone there, the way she walks and carries herself - as the head of a family under terrible circumstances, she is incredibly believable. Warning: be prepared with the tissues.
David Oyelowo ("Selma") as Robert Katende is as charismatic as he's ever been. He captures the endearing kindness of the man who saw a way for this gifted young lady to escape from her slum life and did everything in his power to make it happen.
The film (like the game of chess itself) has some wonderful life lessons:
- Look at all your options.
- Sometimes the place you are used to is not the place you belong.
- In chess, the small one can become the big one.
- Try. It is better to try and fail than fail to try.
- Don’t give up (tip your King) too quickly.
- Consider the other side of the board.
- Losses happen to all of us, but what matters is that you reset your pieces and play the game.
All that to say this: I LOVED this film. I laughed. I cried. I learned. I loved. I promise you will, too.
I highly recommend you take the entire family to see Queen of Katwe. It's uplifting and full of many surprises. Just like life.
Queen of Katwe opens in theaters everywhere on Friday, September 30th, 2016.
Disclosure: I was invited to Los Angeles to attend the red carpet premiere of Disney’s Queen of Katwe (You can read all about that right here) and got to see the movie twice. Accommodations were covered by Disney, but all thoughts are my own. All photos courtesy of Disney.