Sneak Peek: Queen of Katwe
“Queen of Katwe” is based on the vibrant true story of a young girl from the streets of rural Uganda whose world rapidly changes when she is introduced to the game of chess, and, as a result of the support she receives from her family and community, is instilled with the confidence and determination she needs to pursue her dream of becoming an international chess champion. Directed by Mira Nair from a screenplay by William Wheeler, “Queen of Katwe” is produced by Lydia Dean Pilcher, p.g.a. and John Carls, p.g.a. with Will Weiske and Troy Buder serving as executive producers. The film stars Golden Globe® nominee David Oyelowo, Oscar® winner and Tony Award® nominee Lupita Nyong’o and newcomer Madina Nalwanga.
For 10-year-old Phiona Mutesi (Nalwanga) and her family, life in the impoverished slum of Katwe in Kampala, Uganda, is a constant struggle. Her mother, Harriet (Nyong’o), is fiercely determined to take care of her family and works tirelessly selling vegetables in the market to make sure her children are fed and have a roof over their heads. When Phiona meets Robert Katende (Oyelowo), a soccer player turned missionary who teaches local children chess, she is captivated. Chess requires a good deal of concentration, strategic thinking and risk taking, all skills which are applicable in everyday life, and Katende hopes to empower youth with the game. Phiona is impressed by the intelligence and with the game requires and immediately shows potential. Recognizing Phiona’s natural aptitude for chess and the fighting spirit she’s inherited from her mother, Katende begins to mentor her, but Harriet is reluctant to provide any encouragement, not wanting to see her daughter disappointed. As Phiona begins to succeed in local chess competitions, Katende teaches her to read and write in order to pursue schooling. She quickly advances through the ranks in tournaments, but breaks away from her family to focus on her own life. Her mother eventually realizes that Phiona has a chance to excel and teams up with Katende to help her fulfill her extraordinary potential, escape a life of poverty and save her family.
This transcript has been lightly edited:
The Referee: Hey, listeners. Guess what? The Critic and I got a Sneak Peek of the new movie, “Queen of Katwe,” [which opens] September 30.
The Critic: And, that’s in wide release.
Ref: So, if you’re on the coasts or in major cities, you may have seen it open already. It is starring some pretty amazing people: (gasps) David Oyelowo —
Ref: — Lupita Nyong’o, and newcomer Madina Malwanga. This is her first effort. And we’re excited about that. It’s directed by Mira Nair and written by William Wheeler! (laughter) So, let’s get into this.
Critic: Well, it’s based on a true story. It’s set in Uganda. Like you said, we’re talking about Madina Malwanga.
Ref: Aye, ya, ya.
Critic: She plays the lead character, and she becomes the Queen of Katwe. So, this is all about chess. Her character’s name is Phiona. She lives in poverty. She lives with her siblings [and] her mother, played by Lupita Nyong’o. And, they sell maize for money —
Ref: Corn. (laughs)
Critic: That’s right — and all of that, so it’s a struggle. But, this mother is no joke. OK?
Ref: No, you better not mess with her.
Critic: That’s right. She is very serious about protecting her children and all of that. So, what happens is: One day, Phiona finds a chess teacher.
Ref: She does via her brother. (laughs)
Critic: That’s right. So, her brother is in a group of kids who practice chess, and their coach is played by David —
Ref: David Oyelowo.
Critic: There you go.
Ref: I just love saying that name.
Critic: So, he is someone who has a background in that, a background in academics. He has his own family to take care of, as well.
Ref: But he’s no stranger to the slums.
Critic: There you go. So, he understands both worlds. So, he ushers these kids into the world of chess, meaning the larger world of Uganda with the people who have more money, the larger world itself, globally, as well. So, it’s wonderful to see how that plays out. Now, along the way, of course, there are obstacles —
Critic: — of course, Fiona, her belief in herself, how she toggles between that. Also, you know, she helps to support her family.
Critic: So, time with chess means time away from getting food in your mouth.
Ref: That’s right, and the family is going through some problems. We have an older sister, Night, who isn’t quite playing by the rules of the house.
Critic: That’s right. So, Night gets mixed up in some things, and we see how that plays out with [her] and her mother. So, by the end, you can guess what happens: This is a Disney film; it is for families.
Ref: And, it’s real, so you can just look it up yourself. (laughter)
Critic: Right. Actually, she does have the site — the real Phiona — has a site: Queen of Katwe. So —
Ref: There you go.
Critic: There you go.
Ref: Well, you know what? That’s a great summary, just giving us just enough.
Critic: Yeah, I don’t wanna give away all of the points, here.
Ref: You don’t wanna give away all the (laughter) — checkmate.
Critic: But, I will say, (with accent) “Dinner.” (laughter)
Ref: Yes, there are some characters that show up. Speaking of performances, I do have to say that I thoroughly enjoyed David Oyelowo’s performance. In fact, it was one of my favorites. You really got to see this coach, this man, this father, make some tough decisions to pour his life into his kids and, specifically, Fiona. And we see him graduate, sort of, from this guy who’s looking for work to, ultimately, being almost a father figure to her —
Critic: And the rest of the kids.
Ref: Yeah. Great performance, very understated, wasn’t over the top. I loved it.
Critic: Yeah, I so agree. You know what? Overall, I think the casting was very smart.
Ref: Very smart — the kids, themselves —
Critic: Yeah, the kids. I’ll tell you this, everybody: It is a feel-good movie, but not in a manipulative way. You don’t feel like they’re trying to pull one over on you. There’s really something real in it. There’s a truth to it. And, I think that selecting Mira as the director was very smart. She has a sensitivity that’s nice.
Ref: She does.
Critic: And there’s a vibrancy —
Ref: Literally, a vibrancy: There [are] colors splashed all around, especially in the slums. I was noticing that: the costumes —
Ref: Even though, you can argue that those are actual, cultural costumes. There’s something very Mira about it —
Ref: — very “Vanity Fair”: If a color was being worn, you would see it reflected in nature. So, it’s beautiful to see.
Critic: It is. Also, here’s the sticking point for me when it comes to “Queen of Katwe”: It’s some of the writing. Sometimes, it’s to abrupt at the beginning. And, then, toward the end, it was too much. I think they could’ve negotiated that a little better.
Ref: Yeah. Shave off about 20 minutes.
Critic: That’s right. So, they could’ve fixed it a little bit. But, really, you know, it’s nitpicking. I really enjoyed it. I was thoroughly entertained. I mean those kids, some of those kids were just so delightful. Hilarious.
Ref: Uh, some of the adults (laughs) —
Critic: The adults, my boy — I said, dinner. (laughter) Because, there’s one scene, everybody, where David Oyelowo comes to a guy to try to get the kids into their first tournament. And the person overseeing it is a character —
Ref: He is over the federation — the chess federation.
Critic: He says, (with accent) “Well, look here. The invitation states it’s dinner.” (laughter)
Ref: You’re silly, silly, silly. Well, l think we have a recommend here. It’s great to see in the theaters, if you wanna take your children. It’s PG-13; it’s not G. But, overall, it’s a great family film. It’s a great, even, date-night film, if you wanna do something a little different. We know that there are some other things opening, but it also works at home, as well.
Critic: I agree. I think, if you wanna see it in the theater, great. And, you get your money’s worth: It is a little over two hours. So, OK? (laughter) And, if you wanna see it at home, it’s going to work there, as well. So, overall, for me, I enjoyed it. Even with the flaws, I didn’t care.
Ref: And even with your dark heart. (laughter) “Queen of Katwe” opens September 30 — yes, this Friday. You can catch it at a theater near you.