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Three Views: Queen of Katwe

September 23, 2016

Queen of Katwe Review By John Corrado

★★★ (out of 4)

Queen of Katwe PosterProduced by Disney under their based on a true story banner, Queen of Katwe follows Phiona Mutesi (Madine Nalwanga), a girl living in the slums of Uganda with her mother (Lupita Nyong’o) and siblings.  When Phiona is taken under the wing of kind coach Robert Ketende (David Oyelowo), he helps her foster the innate talent she has for chess to become a world champion.

The second place runner-up for the People’s Choice award at TIFF where it premiered two weeks ago, Queen of Katwe is made to be a crowdpleaser, no doubt about it.  And while the film mostly follows the usual feel good beats, and feels overlong at over two hours especially for the family audiences that its clearly targeted towards, for the most part it works for what it is.

Director Mira Nair does a fine job of staging her retelling of this true story, and the film does deliver its share of genuinely uplifting and inspiring scenes, with an emotionally connecting hook.  We watch as Phiona starts to gain confidence through the chess matches, but the trade-off is that it becomes harder and harder for her to return to her life of poverty the more she travels around to compete.  It’s all held together by a trio of excellent performances by Madine Nalwanga, Lupita Nyong’o and David Oyelowo, who keep us engaged and make the film enjoyable to watch.  And stay through the end credits for a charming look at the real people behind the story alongside their onscreen counterparts.

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Robert Ketende (David Oyelowo) and Phiona Mutesi (Madine Nalwanga) in Queen of Katwe

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Queen of Katwe Review By Erin Corrado

★★★ (out of 4)

Based on a true story, Queen of Katwe takes place in the small village of Katwe, Uganda.  When a local ministry program introduces Phiona (newcomer Madina Nalwanga) and her brother to the game of chess, her life in the poor village begins to take a change.  Young Phiona is a prodigy at the game, able to quickly see eight moves ahead, putting her in a position to possibly become a master.  As her coach realizes this, he begins getting her and some of his other talented students into tournaments across Africa.  As Phiona moves up the ranks, she gains the opportunity to attend school, but also begins to become unhappy with her life in the poor village as she sees the opportunity of a better life.  The film is a story of finding a way to surpass what you were born into, but also to reconcile your roots as well.  It is a inspiring story, that is made all the more so by the fact is is true.  Over the end credits we see the real people matched up with their actor counterparts which is great to see.

Queen of Katwe features strong performances from its cast, and while slightly long (just over two hours), it is an entertaining ‘sports’ biopic of sorts (with the sport being chess).  The chess matches are very well filmed with the right level of suspense, and for anyone who knows the game will be fun to watch.  The film will be good for audiences 10+ and viewers may be inspired to learn chess, or look up the true story of Phiona which this is based on.  Just coming off a premiere at TIFF, Queen of Katwe is worth checking out now that it is in mainstream theatres – judging by audience reactions, this one is poised to be a crowd pleaser.

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Phiona Mutesi (Madine Nalwanga) and her mother (Lupita Nyong’o) in Queen of Katwe

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Queen of Katwe Review By Tony Corrado

★★★½ (out of 4)

Queen of Katwe tells the true story of Phiona Mutesi (Madina Nalwanga), a young girl from the Katwe slum of Kampala Uganda who in 2007 joined a chess club set up by the missionary Robert Katende (David Oyelowo). As an illiterate widow, Phiona’s mother (Lupita Nyong’o) barely survived selling baskets of corn and other produce to support Phiona and her two younger brothers, but had too much pride and integrity to make easier money on the streets, a temptation to which Phiona’s older sister Night (Taryn Kyaze) would fall.

The Pioneers chess club provided a meal and opportunity for intellectual development. Katende was soon confident enough to get them into a local tournament where they were at first dismissed as feral by the posh uniformed school kids but emerged as winners. Phiona showed particular genius for the game which led by 2011 to national championship and international competition, as well as an education and hopeful future for her family.

With a distinguished body of work in many cultural settings including East Africa, Indian-born Mira Nair was an ideal director for this project. Despite its Disney banner, it makes no effort to clean up the poverty in which Phiona’s family finds itself. Except for a handful of international competitors, the locations and entire cast and crew are African (at least by heritage). Though some references and the accents may be challenging at times and at just over two hours it is a bit long, the feel-good story with an excellent cast and lots of charming detail will appeal to children as well as adults. Stay for the closing credits with individual curtain calls for the cast alongside their real-life counterparts, and a final hip-hop production number.

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Consensus: Based on an inspiring true story, Queen of Katwe offers an uplifting if slightly overlong drama for family audiences, carried by excellent performances from Madine Nalwanga, Lupita Nyong’o and David Oyelowo. ★★★ (out of 4)

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