David Oyelowo Lupita Nyong’o Madina Nalwanga
Mira Nair is known for quality filmmaking (Salaam Bombay, Mississippi Masala, Monsoon Wedding), and in Queen of Katwe, which is based on a true story, she excels in her conceptualization and import of the film, and directs an outstanding cast and crew to deliver a comprehensive work that is cross-cultural, and has heart, soul, and entertainment value. Her choices of Alex Heffes to compose and incorporate African sounds in the music and Sean Bobbitt to do his magical cinematography (e.g., making chess matches interesting and exciting and capturing the facial expressions of the native players and observers) show her perceptiveness and attention to detail. It helps that for a story about Africans that is to be strongly cultural, Nair has filmed in Uganda before (Mississippi Masala), where she met and married an Ugandan and now has a home there.
The film stars, David Oyelowo, a native Nigerian, and Lupita Nyong’o, born in Mexico of Kenyan parents and reared in Kenya, are likewise excellent choices because of their backgrounds as well as their acting talent and skill. The central main character, Phiona, is played by Madina Nalwanga, a native of Katwe and a first-time actor who gives a flawless rendition of the girl from the slums who is taught to play chess and turns out to have an uncanny gift for the game (e.g., she can reason out and see the next eight moves she will make). Nair wisely chose all the rest of the actors from the area around Katwe, who give naturalistic expressions when they see the other actors in the story and interact with them. A prime example is when Oyelowo graphically acts out a sequence in which he is telling the “Katwe Pioneers” the story of a dog chasing another animal for food who escapes, and hearing the principle behind it—running for a meal vs. running for your life. It’s clear that the child actors have not heard this before and are completely enthralled.
Mira Nair began considering this feature film after making a short documentary (“A Fork, a Spoon, and a Knight”) about the teacher, Robert Katende. Katende was an engineer in Uganda who couldn’t land a job in that profession and began teaching soccer and chess to children in the slums who didn’t have a prayer for an education, or even learning to read. He astutely identified a girl (horror to male egos young and old) who seemed to have not only the ability to strategize and plan ahead, but was a fighter.
Phiona (Nalwanga) was an outcast even in her poor neighborhood, but when she and her brother began to learn chess, it was clear that she had an uncommon talent for it. The acclaim she began to receive was a boost to her ego, and as a result she adopted better social skills. Katende (played by Oyelowo) was a “born teacher”—with all the selflessness that implies. He often taught by telling stories as well as direct instruction, and he wisely thought chess would be especially valuable to poor children in the discipline, persistence and planning ahead that it requires. After he talked a few kids into coming and learning the game, Katende got hooked on leading this young group of chess players to national chess championships. His talent in hustling enabled him to jump over the hoops thrown out to the lower classes by the system, and get his kids to tournaments. (Gratifyingly in the story, it is pointed out that his wife plays an important role in her understanding of his decisions and aims so that she goes along with him, encourages him, and agrees to house them and teach many needy children to read in her home).
The screenplay by William Wheeler is based on an ESPN Magazine article and a book by Tim Crothers with the same title as the film.
In an after-screening satellite interview, Nair, Oyelowo, Nyong’o, and Nalwanga responded to questions from the host Dave Karger and the audience. Oyelowo stated that he was most inspired by Nair’s decision to make the film from the perspective of a woman, a woman of color, and to make the central character be a female, rather than the male teacher, Katende. At one point in the film, a chess tournament official states about Phiona: “Such aggressiveness in a girl is quite a treasure.” He also praised Nyong’o for her ability to convincingly play a woman living in a slum, selling corn in order to support her large family, given that Nyong’o is a famous movie star and Oscar winner and a fashion icon. He began his compliment by saying he had the most fun watching her practice walking like Phiona’s mother, and even demonstrated it for us (making everyone laugh), and then explained why that was such a feat, given who the actress is in real life. The film’s appeal to Lupita was in its depiction of a small girl with a big dream, which came from her becoming aware of her passion for something.
In regard to cast selection, Nair said she first met Phiona and Katende in New York during a chess match. She observed Phiona’s feistiness and pluck at the time, and when she met her mother back in Uganda, she could see where the daughter had gotten it. So she chose actors who could recapture that spunk, Lupita Nyong’o and Madina Nalwanga.
An interesting observation is that the real Phiona and Madina (who had never acted in a movie before) had never seen a film before this one, except for Jurassic World, which the child actors were shown after shooting began. Madina said that her role seemed like she was acting out her own story, because she is a native of Katwe.
A heartwarming touch at the end of the film is Nair’s idea to take photographs of the actors with their real person counterparts standing side by side. In addition, Phiona and Katende were in the telecast audience for us to see them as well.
An inspirational story about a most unlikely chess player.
Grade: A By Donna R. Copeland