Queen of Katwe, an indie film based on a true story, features 10-year-old newcomer Phiona (Madina Nalwanga) living in the shanty town of Katwe in Kampala, Uganda. She is an impoverished little girl who is in a constant struggle to survive along with her mother Harriet (the extraordinary Academy-Award-winning Lupita Nyong’o of “12 Years a Slave” and “Black Panther) and younger brothers.
After Phiona meets Robert Katende (David Oyelowo of “Selma”), a missionary who teaches children how to play chess, her outlook becomes more aspirational than selling vegetables at the local market. Under Katende’s guidance Phiona develops into a chess prodigy, becoming not only a champion player but also a scholarship student in an elite school. She now has an opportunity to escape the misery of her family life. She refuses to let her gender, social status, or lack of an education interfere with her dream to become Uganda’s national chess champion.
One of the more emotionally authentic subplots in Queen of Katwe is the tenuous relationship between Katende and Phiona’s mother. As the mother begins to worry about her daughter’s promising future distancing her, we see a mother-daughter relationship pictured as loving but also awkwardly threatening. Under the direction of Mira Nair, there is no artifice, subplot cliches, or unnecessary romance.
Queen of Katwe is appealing to all ages, and a positive domestic vision of a family with a single mother living in squalor. This film is first and foremost about a young girl’s empowerment and her mother’s unconditional love and acceptance.
The actors are standouts: Newcomer Madina Nalwanga exudes the authenticity and spirit essential for evoking truth. Oyelowo further establishes himself as a powerful presence. And, of course, there is Lupita Nyong’o who must take a stock mother-figure role and turn it into something else, setting every scene with a fire-in-the-belly strength to match Oyelowo. This acting triumvirate makes Queen of Katwe a crowd-pleasing family film for the holiday season.