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Date: 11/1/2016
Disneys Queen of Katwe an Honest Representation of an Underdogs Journey to Success.
Queen of Katwe
Directed by Mira Nair
Genre: Drama film/Sport
Release date: September 23, 2016 (USA)

Fatemah Hassanali

Phiona Mutesi (Madina Nalwanga) and Robert Katende (David Oyelowo)

Photo: Edward Echwalu/Walt Disney Pictures

T he setting is unfamiliar and the references are foreign. Queen of Katwe is one of Disneys most
unconventional movies, yet relatable to all audiences. The film represents a small minority group in an
unknown area of the world and at the same time tells a story that connects viewers to its characters.
Directed by Mira Nair, Queen of Katwe is a story of Phiona Mutesi (Madina Nalwanga) who is from the
slums of Uganda and discovers her hidden talent in chess. Queen of Katwe is based on a true story,
which was first written in an article by Tim Crothers in 2011. This story was nominated for a National
Magazine Award and was then published in a book by the same name as the movie. The film has
received high ratings from internet review websites such as Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic. Mira
Nairs 27 years in Uganda enabled her to present Ugandan culture accurately. The characters traditional

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dress, the African music in the background and the accent used by the actors brings Ugandan culture to
life for unfamiliar audiences.
The movie revolves around a shy and humble girl, Phiona. Once, while carrying out her daily duty
of selling maize, her familys only source of income, she notices a small room where children are eating
porridge. Her hunger draws her into the room. Katende, (David Oyelowo) the coach, who introduces
Phiona to chess, warmly welcomes her. Since Phiona is from a poorer area of the slums, the other
students are not welcoming and discourage her for her unfamiliarity with chess. However, she gradually
practices playing with the best student in the class and realizes her innate talent in the game. In a few
days, Phiona starts defeating chess players who have been playing longer than her. Katende notices her
potential to become a Grandmaster, the highest rank that can be achieved in chess. With the help of
Katende and the support from her mother Nakku Harriet (Lupita Nyongo), Phiona is given the
opportunity to compete nationally and internationally.
The storys emotional aspects and hints of comedy grab the audiences attention throughout the
two-hour movie. The audience is seen and heard celebrating with Phionas victories, smiling and
gasping in agreement when she wins a game against a more experienced player in Katendes chess club.
This underdogs journey is also unusual. Happy endings are not quick. Queen of Katwe portrays the
hardships of Phiona and her family goes through while she pursues her talent in chess, which is Phionas
only way out of poverty. Recent statistics from a report by UNDP (United Nations Development
Program) states that 22.3% of Ugandans in the rural area are in poverty, Phiona strives to take this
opportunity and make a change in her and her familys life. Even after achieving victory nationally,
Phiona goes through pain and suffering where she loses her home and is forced to live on streets.
However, chess is Phionas source of happiness. After Phionas brother, Brian (Martin Kabanza) has an
accident and is rushed to the hospital, the family struggles to cover his health expenses. This gives
Phiona even more to worry about and she loses hope in improving her life through chess. Katende
encourages her and explains life to her through chess. He says, Never be too quick to surrender your
Mira Nair breaks the norm, especially when it comes to womens roles and marriage within the
village of Katwe. FSD (Foundation for Sustainable Development) mentions in an article regarding
gender issues in Uganda, that women have a lower social status than men. Women are not given equal
opportunities in education and decision-making. Nakku, a single mother, is seen working for her family
without a man providing for her. In many instances, she is blamed for being poor due to not having a
mans support. A friend attempts to persuade her to marry him in exchange for wealth but she refuses.
This is mistakenly perceived as ego by the people of Katwe. Mira Nair portrays this trait as selfsufficiency. Nakku is depicted as an empowered woman in her independent life and control.
The movie is an accurate representation of Phionas life, and culture, as well as life in a Ugandan
slum. In real life, Phiona discovered chess accidentally as she was going to sell maize. After learning
chess, Phiona beat all boys, which as mentioned before, caught Katendes attention. The phrases I
started playing against girls and boys and "then I started beating the boys," in the movie were exactly
said by Phiona when she was explaining her story in real-life to Silent Image Documentary, which is a
non-profit organization that travels to tell stories about people in areas of poverty and injustice.
Furthermore, Phionas coach, Robert Katende played an important role in her life just as in the movie.
Phiona mentions in the documentary, He teaches me about chess and God. He has prepared me well for
Russia. Every day Coach Robert and I train to make me a better chess player. When Nakku finds out
that Phiona has been playing chess behind her back, she punishes Phiona by forbidding her to continue
playing. Nakkus reluctance is due to her unfamiliarity with chess and in fear of losing her children to
criminals. However, Katende explains the benefits to Nakku and reassures her.
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The locations filmed in the movie, are the real-life locations where Phiona experienced her journey
of life and chess. As David Oyelowo says in an article in
New York Times, "Being in Uganda, in the church in
Katwe, in the slum that the real Phiona Mutesi emerged
from, depicts the challenges they faced and the uniqueness
of who they are. Filming within the actual slum of Katwe
enhances the accuracy of situations in Phionas life, which
builds a strong connection with the audience. To add
culture relevance within the movie, Mira Nair cast three
Kampala locals who played Phionas older siblings.
However, the only aspect that was not entirely accurate
were the conditions of Katwe. In the movie, Katwe is
portrayed less harshly than how it is in real-life. The movie
avoids showing the high murder rate and drug use, which
makes Katwe an area with the highest crime rate in
Uganda. Perhaps this was avoided to make it more
appropriate for younger teens. Nevertheless, the accuracy
of the movie astonishes Phiona Mutesi. The chess
champion mentions to, I felt like, its
just my life. Its really my life.
This thrilling movie will keep you biting your nails
Robert Katende and Phiona Mutesi (top) and actors
especially during any match Phiona encounters. Whether
David Oyelowo and Madina Nalwanga (bottom)
you are interested in chess or not, this movie is worth
watching for inspiration. Phionas journey demonstrates that irrespective of ones background or
struggles, it is always possible to improve ones life through hard work and determination. Try, fail, try
again, repeat until you succeed. As Robert Katende says What matters is when you reset the pieces and
play a game.

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I would like to thank Jahaan Saini and Abigail Unger for peer reviewing my movie review and
improving my ideas. I would also like to thank Professor Cecelia Musselman for giving me comments
on how to improve my movie review. This would not be possible without your guidance and support.

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