Tuesday, May 9, 2017

DVD: Queen of Katwe

Queen of Katwe is a biopic about a young Ugandan girl, Phiona Mutesi who becomes a Woman Candidate Chess Master after competing in the World Chess Olympiad. The movie traces her life and development as a chess master beginning in 2007 until 2012.

In 2007 nine-year-old Phiona is living in Katwe, the largest of Kampala's slums with her mother Harriet and her brothers, Brian and Richard. Phiona's father has died, although the reason is not given in the film (he died of AIDS when she was three years old, making the family's situation desperate). Phiona's older sister, Night is becoming involved with a guy named Theo who gives her rides on his motorbike. When he shows up at their home in the slum, Harriet chases him away and scolds Night telling her she needs to sell maize to feed her brothers.

Meanwhile Robert Katende tells his friend Kyazze that he has been turned down for an engineering job. Kyazze tells him the officials don't care about his marks but about his family status. He convinces Katende to accept a full time job with the ministry giving hope to slum children. Katende reluctantly accepts, telling Kyazze he will do the job only until he finds an engineering job. 

Phiona and her brother Brian are sent out daily to sell maize in the market, but her older brother frequently disappears. One day Phiona decides to follow him and discovers he goes to a camp run by Sports Outreach Institute, a Christian organization that uses sports to evangelize children. The program is run by Robert Katende. At Sports Outreach he gets served a cup of porridge and is taught how to play chess. Phiona enters the shack but is mocked by the other kids who tell her she smells. Undeterred by the comments about her smell, Phiona showers, cleans herself and arrives the next day to learn how to play chess. Phiona shows an aptitude for chess and  by 2008 begins to win games against the other children in the program. The other children are anxious to play the city children as Katende promised so he approaches the Chairman of the Father Grimes Tournament, which is held at King's College at Budo. Chairman Barumba cites many reasons why the Katwe children cannot compete; they might bring diseases, they do not attend a school, and they cannot pay the 4,000 shillings entrance fee. However, Katende thanks him and is able to make the fee by playing soccer.

Meanwhile, Harriet pulls Brian and Phiona out of the Pioneer club believing they are being taught to gamble. However Katende manages to convince her that chess is not a gambling game but one of reason and intelligence. He also convinces her to allow her children to play in the tournament at King's College, promising to find a way for them to attend school. At the Father Grimes National Schools Chess Championship, the Katwe children do well but it is Phiona who defeats the top-ranked player and is awarded the Budoan gold medal. For Phiona, it is the beginning of a journey that will take her to different countries and open doors to education and opportunities both for herself and her family.

In Queen of Katwe, well known actors Lupita Nyong'o and David Oyelowo were cast as Phiona's mother Nakku Harriet and Robert Katende respectively. Phiona was played by Madina Nalwanga, a newcomer and fellow Ugandan. All give excellent performances.

Director Mira Nair who lives in Kampala for part of the year, shots some of the movie's scenes in Kampala. Nair really captures the precarious situation of Phiona's family as they struggle to survive day to day. It is a most revealing portrait of the very poor in Africa. There is no electricity in the Katwe slum, instead they must burn paraffin. At one point the family arrives home after rushing Phiona's brother to the hospital, to find they have been evicted from the shack they live in. They spend the night wandering Katwe. Eventually they find a home; it has no privacy with a patchy roof and even missing walls. As Phiona wins tournaments her family's situation begins to improve. Chess offers her the opportunity to escape the slum and purchase a new home for her mother.

The pacing of the movie is uneven as it takes time to build Phiona's development as a chess player and to show how winning affects her relationship with her mother. As Phiona becomes known throughout Uganda she refuses to work, wanting to spend her time studying chess strategy. This attitude makes her mother angry and she confronts Katende telling him that he has ruined her children. Phiona learns to read and write and eventually goes to live with the Katende's for a period of time. Her mother, at first reluctant to encourage Phiona eventually realizes that playing chess might be the way out of poverty for her daughter, especially after Night returns home, abandoned and pregnant.

Critics of the film have questioned why a movie was made about Phiona Mutesi, whom some consider to be a mediocre chess player at best. However, given her precarious situation growing up in the slums of Kampala, there's no doubt Phiona's accomplishments should be recognized.There are now many chess clubs throughout Uganda. Chess offers children a chance to develop their reasoning and critical thinking skills, preparing them for the challenges they face in the developing world.


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