Kenya‘s Hollywood export Lupita Nyong’o is back in the limelight as a Ugandan (and somewhat cross-referenced, African) mother of a chess prodigy called Phiona Mutesi, in Disney‘s newest and probably most inspirational film yet, ‘Queen of Katwe‘.
Madina Nalwanga is by all means a novice at her craft, with this feature in Indian-American-Ugandan director Mira Nair‘s depiction of the true story. But her remarkable performance as Phiona (I half thought it was misspelled on a banner I saw in the film) in this timeless story offers the conviction that in her teenage years she’s on her way to stardom, just like Miss Nyong’o.
Katwe happens to be an underprivileged neighbourhood on the outskirts of Uganda’s capital, Kampala, and the primary setting for the film ‘Queen of Katwe‘. We come across a lowly and unassuming barely ten year old young girl who’s life is characterised by rising up early each morning to fetch water and get started with her chores before her younger siblings get up. Never mind that she has an older sister, Night (played by Taryn Kyaze), who’s meant to be the mature one.
You see, their mother, Nakku Harriet (played by Lupita Nyong’o) has done her best to bring up three children on her own, in the middle of the sprawling slum that is Katwe, following the death of her husband. Her youngest is barely three years old, and with her eldest and prettiest, Night, falling for the whims of a liquid boda boda rider. At this point it’s either things fall apart quickly, or that Phiona takes on the reigns of keeping things together as Nakku sells maize by the Lake in order to bread-win.
Nakku is a proud woman who doesn’t take short cuts and looks out for the very best for her family. What she lacks for in education, she more than makes up for in principle and ethic, never bowing to the temptations offered around her to sell her body for monetary favours, as a large section of the local single ladies or widows just like her do. More often than not these are the same principles that keep her and the family languishing in poverty, until by some pure coincidence Phiona is drawn to the chess training center of Mr. Robert Katende (David Oyelowo), a trained engineer who’s chosen to sacrifice his career in order to help the community.
Phiona swiftly rises through the ranks, from a smelly newbie who nobody wanted to bother with, even her fellow slum children, to the chess champion of Katende’s class, who’s gone ahead and done the unthinkable – beaten even the boys in this game of strategy and anticipation. Even the local chess society isn’t prepared for the brevity and accomplishment of Robert Katende and his band of slum whiz kids who take everyone by storm and even represent the whole country in Sudan for the regional junior champions. I must admit it was a confusing yet interesting phenomenon to watch Kenyans through the eyes of a Ugandan.
Eventually the attention of an entire nation is on someone born out of privilege with nothing more than her intelligence and the upbringing of a loving mother who chose never to compromise her standards or morals and the fine-tuning of a coach who’s faith in her abilities never waned.
‘Queen of Katwe‘ explores a cornucopia of Ugandan culture, from flicking of the fingers, traffic jam manicures and cloth-es – to African music, though predominantly Nigerian hits, and the beautiful revelation that there’s no limitation to dreaming big and relentlessly working hard to achieve our hearts desires, after all, our dreams are valid.
| ‘Queen of Katwe’ opens in cinemas across East Africa on October 7th 2016