Directed by the critically acclaimed Indian director Mira Nair, Queen of Katwe is an inspiring underdog story of a girl from the slums of Kampala, Uganda who becomes an unlikely international chess star. Selling corn on the streets of the poor neighborhood Katwe from a young age to help support her family and widowed mother, Phiona Mutesi feels her life is hopeless as an impoverished, uneducated young woman. Eventually, she sees a glimmer of hope after a local missionary named Robert Katande, played by the Golden Globe-nominated actor David Oyelowo, teaches her how to play chess. Interestingly, the film has a certain degree of realism by having Phiona impressively portrayed by Madina Nalwanga, an Ugandan actress in her first movie who also happens to be from the same slums as her character. The movie follows Phiona as she and her teammates compete in progressively harder chess tournaments against more privileged competitors throughout Uganda and eventually even in Russia. The film also effectively presents the more personal side of Phiona’s life. For instance, Katande becomes less of a coach and more of a father figure despite himself struggling to find a steady job to support his wife and infant daughter. Despite her successes on the chessboard, she must face the harsh realities of her life and be there for her single mother played by the Oscar-winning actress Lupita Nyong’o. Her mother fears Phiona will become jaded and used to a more comfortable life that may not continue after her chess career. Overall, I found the film to be one of the more inspiring stories of how a girl against all odds is able to overcome her extremely difficult life and excel at a game associated with the highly educated and privileged. It is also refreshing that Disney decided to make a mainstream movie defying the cinematic stereotypes of Africa: it is comprised of an all black cast and is set almost exclusively in the real neighborhoods of Uganda. There is no archetypal white savior who single-handedly saves the impoverished black child from a life of crime and misery.
Now 20 years old and considered one of the top chess players in the world, Phiona Mutesi originally had to drop out of school at the age of 9 due to a lack of money and following the death of her father from AIDS. In 2010, she returned to school and participated in her first major international tournament at the 39th Chess Olympiad held in Russia. By 2012, she was the Uganda junior girls champion three times and represented Uganda at the 40th Chess Olympiad where she became a Woman Candidate Master along with her fellow teammate, becoming the first females with titles in Ugandan chess history. She also became the first girl to win the open category in the National Junior Chess Championship in Uganda in 2012 and followed the next year as the overall champion. She was able to support her family after getting paid as the subject of a biography about her inspiring story written in 2012 by the Sports Illustrated journalist Tim Crothers entitled The Queen of Katwe, which is the basis for the film.