Queen of Katwe
We are all beautiful in God's eyes, kings and queens every one. But in this fallen world, we can seem far from equal. And it may even feel as if some people are born pawns.
Katwe, a slum-ridden region of Uganda's capital of Kampala, is filled with such seeming pawns: the poor for whom it's a full-time job just to feed themselves, find shelter and survive to see the next day. For some, even a simple roof is a luxury.
Phiona Mutesi calls Katwe home. Her father's gone. Her mother, Nakku Harriet, wakes up early every morning to buy some scrawny ears of corn that her children sell on Katwe's crowded streets. Phiona's not in school because Nakku can't even afford the uniform, much less tuition. On good nights, Nakku and her four children might all eat. On bad ones, she goes hungry. On worse ones, her children do.
For Phiona, this life is her past, present and future. Selling corn. Eating when she can. She is one of thousands, tens of thousands, scrambling to survive—pawns just hoping to find a safe square for a time … 'til fate and circumstance find her and sweep her from that board for good.
Then Phiona and her brother discover a chess club, led by Robert Katende. There, other kids from Katwe find a little diversion from their bleak, day-to-day scrap of existence. Maybe even a little fun.
But even in Katwe, there are social strata that you challenge at your peril. The other kids shun Phiona—grimacing at her smell and calling her a pig. But Phiona won't leave. She returns (freshly bathed) and begins learning the game, step by laborious step. Soon she's competing with the club's best players. Then she's beating them.
She learns that if a pawn can make it to the end of the board, that piece can be exchanged for another. "In chess, the small one can become the big one," someone explains to her. "That's why I like it."
And maybe, just maybe, this real-life pawn—a child from one of the dingiest corners of Katwe—can use her prodigious chess talents to reach the end of the board too.
Queen of Katwe is based on the remarkable real story of Phiona Mutesi, who went on to become a Master chess player. But Phiona—both in the movie and in real life—didn't just spring from obscurity without help. This Disney film shows us who guided Phiona and encouraged her to reach her potential.
We begin with Robert, a soccer-playing would-be engineer whose real passion (besides his own fledgling family) is teaching kids how to play chess. He remembers how rewarding it was for him as a teen to beat more affluent kids from the "city." He believes that the game can give Katwe's poor sons and daughters a sense of confidence, self-worth and identity, thus becoming a springboard to a better, brighter future for them. Despite some danger of injury, Robert plays soccer to win money for his kids' competition entry fees. He's so dedicated to these children, in fact, that he passes up a better-paying work opportunity to stay with the team, sacrificing his own upward trajectory to encourage his chess charges to go farther instead.
While Robert shows an interest in all the children who participate in his Pioneers Chess Club, Phiona is a rare talent. Throughout critical moments of her young life, Robert is there to support her, even taking her into his own house for a time. In fact, Robert becomes something of a father figure to Phiona, helping her begin to see how the strategies she's mastering on the chess board also apply to the game of life. "There are too many problems!" Phiona moans. "But chess helps us to solve problems, eh?" his coach reminds her.
Meanwhile, Phiona's mother tenaciously holds the family together back home—whatever sort of home they might be living in that week. Nakku Harriet is a woman of deep moral conviction, refusing to compromise her principles even when it would make life easier. She scrapes through existence with a certain unflappable dignity. Even when she worries about Phiona's burgeoning (and eventually all-consuming) interest in chess, questioning the wisdom of pursuing it so strongly, we know that she's only concerned with Phiona's welfare.
And let's not forget Phiona herself. She's determined and, in her own way, courageous. Life hasn't been kind to her, but she still shows kindness and generosity to others—helping in whatever manner she can to hold her family together. Sure, she lets those mad chess skills of hers go to her head on occasion. But those moments are rare. For the most part, Phiona carries herself as a true role model.
The Pioneers chess club is operated under the auspices of the Agape Sanctuary Ministry. The movie doesn't focus much on the "ministry" aspect of the chess club. But it's fairly clear that Christian faith is woven into the everyday lives of Phiona and the people around her. Phiona's family prays over their meager dinners, for instance. Coach Robert leads prayers before an important chess tournament. Characters talk regularly about God.
Given the challenges they face, faith can sometimes be hard. "Do you think God has forgotten us?" Phiona asks her older sister, Night. "I don't think God cares about us one way or another," Night says. Night's turned away from spiritual answers and instead slips into a sinful relationship, much to the disdain of her mother. "I can look away," Nakku says, furious, "but God still sees what you do."
An old church with a window in the shape of a cross serves as home to Nakku, Phiona and the rest of the family—a physical and symbolically spiritual refuge from Katwe's cruel streets.
When Phiona takes her first trip aboard an airplane and looks at the clouds below her, she asks her coach if she's seeing heaven. "No," Coach says. "Heaven is a bit higher."
The pressures of Katwe's poverty can be crushing. The destitute have few options, and if you're a woman, those options are even narrower. The most viable way out for some is to find a "sugar daddy." And while the sexual connotations of those relationships are never explicitly shown or spelled out here, there's still an underlying sexual tension—perhaps one that would fly over the heads of young viewers but one that would be inescapable for adults.
[Spoiler Warning] Night has chosen to live with her so-called Sugar Daddy—a guy who seems to be interested in her for only one reason. ("I know a hyena when I see it," Nakku says of him.) She runs off with this man and, on her infrequent returns, she's dressed in tight, sequined dresses and wears garish makeup. On one trip back home, she tries to give the family money—money that Nakku only takes when Phiona essentially forces the cash into her hand. Eventually we learn that Night's beau "got tired of her," and she returns to live with her family again. She later reveals that she's pregnant.
Nakku refuses to take Night's path, but the temptation to do so is still present. "I will give you something for free when you give me something for free," a man tells her. At one juncture she goes into the city dressed up to meet an old boyfriend. The man still carries a torch for Nakku, and we're led to believe that Nakku is hoping to find a more stable home environment, even if she has to be with someone she doesn't love to do so.
When Phiona and her brother first get involved with Robert's chess program, a neighbor plants the suspicion in Nakku that there's something untoward happening in the club. "Who knows how they [the chess coaches] use their children?" one of Nakku's friends warns her.
Phiona, still in her early teens, wonders which way she might go—or will be forced to go—as she grows up. "Very soon, men will start coming after me," she says. "Where is my safe square, Coach?"
Some male kids and adults go without shirts. Coach Robert and his wife lay on a bed, kissing and cuddling as he encourages her to be intimate with him. (The camera departs before anything happens.)
Phiona's brother is injured in a hit-and-run accident, and Phiona bribes a motorcyclist to take him to the hospital. We see a bloody wound on his upper leg (as well as some scrapes and cuts elsewhere). The doctor says that they can stitch him up but have nothing to deaden the pain: Nakku tells the doctor to proceed, and we hear the boy wail in misery. Later, Nakku removes an IV from her son's arm and asks Phiona to help him hobble out of the hospital because they don't have money to pay the medical bill.
Nakku's house in an old church is flooded, nearly sweeping away her youngest son. Phiona punches a fellow chess club member. We hear about relatives dying.
Crude or Profane Language
We hear a handful of misuses of God's name.
Drug and Alcohol Content
Coach Robert drinks what might be beer out of an unmarked bottle.
Other Negative Elements
Conversations reference going to the bathroom and sewers. Nakku worries that chess is all about gambling. And while Robert says that "chess is not gambling," we do see him, in a flashback, winning money in a chess game.
"Challenges are not a curse."
That's what we read on the back of Robert's dilapidated ministry bus. And in the context of this story—where Phiona and her peers face so many challenges—it's a critical message. People talk about the kids from Katwe as being diseased, almost untouchable. One of Phiona's competitors actually wipes his hand after Phiona shakes it.
But Robert suggests that the challenges his Katwe kids face are indeed far from curses. In fact, they may even be blessings. Life for their opponents, he suggests, has always been relatively easy. But for Phiona and her friends? "You are running for your lives." And that makes them strong.
You could read that observation as an echo of the opening verses of Romans 5: "We rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope. And hope does not put us to shame, because God's love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us" (vv 3-5).
Queen of Katwe is a story about hope—and about the courage, determination and skill that goes hand-in-hand with that hope. Phiona dared hope, despite the despair piled around her. And in so doing (and because she's a really good chess player), she gave hope to her entire community.
That's a pretty great message. And it makes for a pretty good movie.
Other Belief Systems
Readability Age Range
Madina Nalwanga as Phiona Mutesi; David Oyelowo as Robert Katende; Lupita Nyong'o as Nakku Harriet; Martin Kabanza as Mugabi Brian; Taryn Kyaze as Night; Ivan Jacobo as Young Richard; Nicolas Levesque as Older Richard
September 23, 2016