Chess champion from the slums by Richard Jones

queenA look at Queen of Katwe (PG)

TEN-YEAR-OLD Phiona lives with her family in one of the most depressing slums outside the Ugandan capital, Kampala.

Phiona (Madina Nalwanga) goes about her daily tasks – selling corn, cleaning the shack where she lives, lugging massive cans of water through the traffic – and seems likely to be doing that forever.

But everything changes when her brother takes her to a local kids’ soccer game where she meets the coach.

He’s Robert Katende (David Oyelowo) and a qualified engineer. In reality he’s more of a local missionary, preferring to assist the children and early teens from the impoverished district he knows well.

So not only does Robert coach soccer but also inside a run-down local shed he teaches them chess.

The kids all refer to him as ‘coach’ and he guides them through battles against self-doubt, poverty and snobbery.

The snobbery becomes especially evident when the best chess players among the slum children come up against opponents from private and government-funded schools in state-sanctioned competitions.

Robert had gone to extreme lengths to persuade Uganda’s chess officials, let alone local private school headmasters and principals, to allow his unschooled, under-privileged slum kids to compete in children’s tournaments.

One day down by the river Robert finally comes to grips with Phiona’s phenomenal ability.

She can plan eight chess moves ahead at a time. Not three or four: eight.

He’s being soundly beaten, game after game, by his then illiterate prodigy.

Phiona’s mother Harriet (Academy Award winner Lupita Nyong’o) is excellent as the embattled single Mum trying to keep her family together.

She really struggles with the notion that being good at a board game could lead to wealth and fame, let alone a moneymaking career.

And even when Robert enrols Phiona and her brother in school, Harriet is a bit put out that they both move in with him and his wife so that Phiona can concentrate on her chess and her education.

Fortunately director Mira Nair (who, it turns out, has a house not that far from the Kampala slum shown in her film) doesn’t dwell too much on the mechanics of chess.

We do, though, see Phiona at tournaments. She’s all rugged up against the freezing northern hemisphere winter in Russia.

Then competing where the climate is more like her own: in Sudan.

It’s salutary to remember that it was only three years earlier that Phiona had first heard of chess, or seen a chess board, at all.

Now she’s competing at international tournaments representing Uganda.

Nair shows that the humble pawn can take on the powerful Queen after all.

One final note. Don’t leave without watching the end credits, an old rule-of-thumb passed down by renowned reviewer David Stratton.

You’ll see the actual people on whom Nair and her team based the characters, alongside the actors who portrayed them on the silver screen.

And it wasn’t until these credits I realised Queen Of Katwe is a Disney Productions movie. There’s nothing soapy or soppy about it – it’s just a heart-warming story without prompted or promoted tugs at the heart!

One thought on “Chess champion from the slums by Richard Jones

  1. Just stumbled upon this blog, great writing and i’m looking forward to reading more. This review caught my attention and as a new found lover of chess i’m really looking forward to watching this film. The short trailer I just viewed looks great and there was a nice little line spoken by one of the small actors, “in chess the small one can become the big one” referring to the pawn becoming a queen. Thanks for the review, Netflix has failed me once again though I am sure I will find it somewhere.

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