Review: Queen of Katwe



Losing To Win

Strategy is not a particular gift of mine. It’s been so long since I’ve even attempted a game of chess, I don’t think I can accurately recall all the pieces or the laws that govern their movements. I don’t think I’ve even ever won a game of Monopoly for that matter. So needless to say that Queen of Katwe a dramatic retelling of how Phiona Mutesi, a girl from the poor slum of Katwe outside of Kampala, Uganda became a world-class chess champion makes me feel small and ungifted in comparison.

Newcomer Madina Nalwaga is so effortless in her performance as Phiona that one forgets that she is not Phiona herself until the appearance of the real-life Phiona during the credits. Veteran thespian support comes in the form of Oscar-winner Lupita Nyong’o (12 Years a Slave) as Phiona’s strong-willed and strong-hearted mother Harriet and a charismatic performance from Oscar Golden Globe-nominee David Oyelowo (Selma) as Robert Kutende, a coach for a sports outreach ministry. Good thing for the actors that the story/writing (screenplay by William Wheeler) is so strong, as it lets them deliver authentic and powerful dialogue without ever coming across as forced or overly-sentimental. Mira Nair, the director behind Oscar-nominated Salaam Bombay and crossover hit Monsoon Wedding brings the slums of Katwe to life in a way that is authentic without being voyeuristically shocking.

The movie isn’t perfect – there are natural timeline discrepancies that occur as the result of spinning a 5-year-long tale with a large cast of actors which cannot be aged five years from beginning to end. This isn’t Boyhood, after all, so that flaw is forgivable. Less forgivable are inconsistent moments in the editing that feel jarring or unfinished. If this was an artistic choice, it was the wrong one to make.

Otherwise, the film is a joy to watch and like Saving Mr. Banks, is a very mature one for Disney’s live-action studio. I especially commend the studio for its ongoing efforts to make diversity a priority in their storytelling. While I doubt Queen will earn a slew of award accolades, I’d love to see some attention for Mr. Oyelowo for a charismatic performance.

Without giving too much away, I think the greatest lesson of Queen is that while victory is great , it is worthless if it does not grow a person in love and humility. Losing is not so bad if it teaches you to be better. Western culture – American culture in particular – is convinced of the idea that we have to always be winning and that defeat signals an end. I myself fall into this trap too often, defining myself by my victories, even though my losses have helped make me who I am just as much (if not more).

In fact, every good chess player knows that loss is actually part of the overall strategy for victory – no one gets through a game with all their pieces intact. Sacrifices must be made. Loss must be endured. Mistakes are made but can be redeemed. And even the smallest piece has an important role in the grand design. And that is Queen of Katwe’s real magic.

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