REVIEW: Queen of Katwe…

“Sometimes, the place you're used to, is not the place where you belong.”

Queen of Katwe

A few weeks ago I needed a mental health day. I called off work, Womon & Black. I went north to Landmark Century to get lost in movies. Real talk, I had no expectations of either movie, I simply needed to see Black folk on the big screen, so I chose Moonlight and Queen of Katwe, the Blackest things showing. Real talk, I just wanted to get lost in movies and unplug.

I saw the movies back-to-back with only a bathroom break and a run downstairs to Walgreens, or was that CVS? Anyhoo, with my electronics pushed far down in my bag, I curled up in the reclining chair with my hoodie loose but secure on my head, my shoes off my feet, and my snacks, water and “eye sweat catchers,” tucked on my side.

Queen of Katwe is a warm fuzzy movie, but the synopsis I found for the movie, doesn’t fully reflect the “realness” of the movie. The movie was not as neatly packaged as the synopsis reads, I felt like I was watching real people, “not woe is me,” and not Disney.

Synopsis: “Living in the slum of Katwe in Kampala, Uganda, is a constant struggle for 10-year-old Phiona (Madina Nalwanga)  and her family. Her world changes one day when she meets Robert Katende (David Oyelowo), a missionary who teaches children how to play chess. Phiona becomes fascinated with the game and soon becomes a top player under Katende’s guidance. Her success in local competitions and tournaments opens the door to a bright future and a golden chance to escape from a life of poverty.”

Ugandan, Disney exec, Tendo Nagenda had a vision. Writer and director, Mira Nair and William Wheeler provided the frame, but the cast, made the movie accessible and drew the audience in. The acting in Queen of Katwe was refreshing. Once I saw who was in it, I was like: “okay, lets see.” Since seeing Lupita Nyong’o on Broadway in Eclipsed, where she acted her arse off, I have more respect for her range and depth. I can do with or without David Oyelowo, but I think he was well-suited for the role of Robert Katende, chess coach and mentor.

I smiled at the structure of the chess program in the movie because it is positive youth development. And the reality is, youth come for programming, but they stay for healthy and positive relationships.

Who were absolutely heart-grabbers, though, were the youth. I loved their authenticity in portraying the characters. Their characters were youthful, age-appropriate and they did not translate on screen as “victims,” or “slum children” being given a “hand out.” They weren’t given anything, they earned their status and Phiona, was the best player, hands down. They were vibrant, eager to learn, full of life, and I appreciated that their plight wasn’t ignored; more importantly, they were not reduced to their circumstance. Yes, there were parts that were very Disney and prescribed but they didn’t overshadow those things that were amazing about the movie and I really enjoyed the music.

Clips from some of the blackity-black moments of the movie. For example: Sitting between mama’s legs, a girl getting her scalp greased by her mother is a familiar ritual for us black girls.

Lupita put her sista-girl foot in the role with her rawness and relatability. She successfully conveyed Black girls sass with the struggle of wanting to provide for her children, as best she could, as a widow, while also wanting to protect her children and keep them humble. Moreover, she was able to balance a desire for Phiona to humble, with not limiting her potential and possibilities.

Lupita’s interpretation of Nakku Harriet, Phiona’s mother was superb. Mama was strong with layered vulnerability. Lupita’s character helped to keep the movie grounded, and real, not cheesy. Phiona’s sister and brother characters add to the storyline of being well-rounded and communal. I sorta thought about Akeelah and the Bee, but this was different, more intense, higher stakes. The other young people also pulled off very layered characters with lots of personality.

Madina Nalwanga, portrayed the complexity of 10-year-old, Phiona Mutesi. This girl’s root chakra, core and sense of self even in moments of doubt and insecurity were so affirming and made me cheer for her, and want the “W” for her, even more. Madina natural sensibilities came through her characterization of Phiona.

Take aways from the movie:

Can you do big things from a small place?

Don’t be quick to tip your king, in defeat.

You belong here. You deserve to be here.

Loss, does not mean failure.

Do what you’ve been called to do.

With Uganda as the backdrop and music/dance everpresent, Queen of Katwe was a pretty good movie.



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