Emerald Eye: Queen of Katwe Review

by Teri Youngman

Lupita Nyong’o shines as Nakku Harriet, a widowed mother of four struggling to survive in the slums of Katwe,  a neighborhood in the Ugandan capital of Kampala. However, her daughter, Phiona Mutesi, is destined for great things thanks to a little game called chess, in Queen of Katwe, a fun, inspirational and slightly by the numbers feel-good tale.

When the 10-year-old Phiona, played by newcomer Madina Nalwanga, meets Robert Katende (David Oyelowo) a soccer coach and chess teacher, their lives are forever changed.

Phiona is a natural at the game and immediately becomes the best player in Katende’s class. The chess teacher recognizes the savant’s limitless potential in mastering the game and devotes himself to training her.

Once it dawns on Phiona just how good she is, her confidence blossoms. Dreams of glory and a life suddenly filled with possibilities floods into her head.

Traveling across the country to play in tournaments exposes her to how the wealthier and more privileged live. The experience contrasts the harsh reality of life back home, making it harder and harder for her to return there after every trip.

In many ways the only thing Phiona can lean on is the hope of one day becoming something greater than what the slums of Katwe appear to have in store for most of its residents.

For her mother Nakku, hope is a luxury she cannot afford while attempting to maintain a home for her children, in the poorest conditions imaginable.

Even when Phiona begins to hit her stride as a player, Nakku is reluctant to encourage it, wanting to dull her daughter’s delusions of grandeur, while becoming ever weary of Katende, not entirely sure if he has her daughter’s best interest at heart.  

But like any good mother, she simply wants what’s best for her child, and once she realizes the importance of the game to her daughter and the sincere belief her coach has in her, she soon throws her full support towards her daughter reaching her goals as a champion chess player.

It is Nakku’s struggle that really drives the film, and Nyong’o brings her A game here, her dedication to her children is as fierce as an African lioness, willing to sacrifice almost anything for them, never giving up on them no matter how dire her circumstances become.

Oyelowo is fantastic here too, bringing real gravitas to the role of a good family man, who struggles in his own life and wants more than anything to be able to provide a better life for his family but who is also so dedicated to his students that he is willing to make sacrifices of his own in order for them to succeed, a man it would be easy to find too good to be true if this weren’t based on a true story.

Phiona’s rise through the ranks as a chess player is a fun one to watch, and in many ways the film moves into typical sports movie clichés, but it’s all done very well and all of the young actors bring such great energy to the roles that you won’t mind it, especially Nalwanga who is a revelation in the role of Phiona, bringing a strong comic side, and showing real chops when the character has some rough emotional moments.

You’ll want to cheer Phiona all the way from the moment you see her playing her first match, up until she becomes somewhat of a national hero, on her way to challenge some of the best players in the world, and that’s all thanks to a great performance from young Nalwanga.

Cinematographer Sean Bobbitt provides the film with some beautiful and sweeping shots of the country, and the soundtrack by Alex Heffes is great with a nice mix of traditional film orchestra and more African-sounding tunes that really help bring Katwe to life.

Overall the film is pretty predictable but in the best way, as in you know where you think the movie is going but you’ll be rooting for the characters anyway. You’ll want to see them get there all thanks to fantastic performances by Nyong’o and Oyelowo and what should prove to be a star-making turn by Nalwanga.

 Final Score: 4 Emeralds out of 5

The Queen of Katwe starring David Oyelowo and Lupita Nyong’o plays at the Columbia City Ark Lodge Cinemas at 4:15pm and 7:15pm this week.