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Movie Review: Queen of Katwe

Saturday, October 22, 2016 - 10:01

OK, let's cut to the chase. GO SEE THIS MOVIE!!!

Phiona Mutesi lives in a Uganda slum, working hard to help her single mother provide for the family. Robert Katende is working for a church youth sports program, with a chess club on the side. When Phiona encounters the chess club she struggles to balance her fascination and love for the challenge with family responsibilities--a struggle that intensifies as her brilliant talent for the game develops. Katende fights for the chance for his best proteges to compete at ever-increasing levels.

There's always a worry when Hollywood--and especially DIsney--presents a story like this of triumph over adversity that the story will be shaped and moulded to fit conventional narratives. My perception (knowing only the story presented in the film) is that the temptation was avoided in this case. I love how Phiona's story is told from within her community and culture, not whitewashing anything (either in a literal or figurative sense) but also not presenting it though a judgmental filter. A story like this is typically presented as a parable of the power of individual talent to self-rescue from a disadvantaged origin, but as Phiona advances through her achievement, she embraces and is embraced by her community, both her neighbors in Katwe and her countrymen of Uganda. She becomes a local heroine, not a success-and-escape story.

All the major characters have their own story arcs, facing choices to make about self versus community, facing setbacks and tragedies and continuing on because that's all there is to do. And all of them struggle with flaws and fears and temptations.

At the end of the movie, even more than the symbol of Phiona's achivement (not a big spoiler, since it fits the archetypal narrative in some ways), what I loved was the credit sequence when that principal actors were joined on screen by the real-life person they were playing. This is almost a "real time" production; the book that inspired the movie was published in 2012 hard on the heels of Phiona's national championship and the movie began production in the same year.

If you want to see an inspiring success story outside of the same-old same-old of western white culture, that honors and embraces the people and culture it portrays with an unflinching gaze, make sure you see Queen of Katwe before it disappears from the fairly limited distribution it's enjoying. And if this movie doesn't win at least one Oscar there is no justice.