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Review: Queen of Katwe

"In chess, the small one can become the big one."

Disney has always gravitated towards the story of the underdog: climbing up from the depths of adversity, and proving to the world that they are worth something. And Mira Nair's QUEEN OF KATWE holds true to this theme -- telling the true story of Phiona Mutesi (played by Marina Nalwanga), a young girl who rises from the slums of Uganda to become a chess master, this story has inspiration steeped in its bones. But it's got more up its sleeve than warm and fuzzy feelings... it actually lets Western civilization get a glimpse of the social landscape of Uganda through a lens other than its own.

Phiona lives with her mother, Nakku Harriet (Lupita Nyong'o) and brothers in Katwe, a slum on the outskirts of Kampala, trying to make ends meet by selling maize on the street. One day, her brother Brian (Martin Kabanza) shirks his duties to play with some kids at a local chess club in the neighborhood, and Phiona follows him. Despite the other children's insistence that Phiona stinks, she begins to learn the game, cleaning herself up and stubbornly sticking to it; and pretty soon, she's beating the regulars, and pulling tricks out from her head that the club's coach, Mr. Katende (David Oyelowo), has only seen in books.

The rest of the story details the discipline and excitement that Phiona experiences as the kids enter tournaments -- Benjamin (Ethan Nazario Lubega) and Ivan (Ronald Ssemeganda) follow Phiona further and further into competitions -- and the struggle that her family has in keeping their heads financially afloat. Each and every character adds their own nuance of life into the story, whether it is a lesson in humility, commitment, or confidence.

The film shows with such sharp clarity what life is like for young Phiona: vendors sticking their products into car windows to make a sale; men driving their boda-bodas (motorcycles); carrying the brightly colored plastic jugs to collect water; the treasure of a song being sung during dinner. Even the opening logo has that reggaeton music playing in the background. You will hear words like "sebo" and "nyabo" ("sir" and "madame" respectively), and delight in the mannerisms that are so prevalent in Uganda. While there are some moments throughout the film that give a slight overdose of melodrama, the atmosphere rings true: this film will transport you.

Nyong'o and Oyelowo, of course, give esteemed performances, but credit must be showered on the new talent in this ensemble: Nalwanga and the rest of the chess club are phenomenal. And the well-chosen cast is just a part of what makes this film stand out from all the other feel-good Disney movies of the past. While the "underdog" stories have always thrived on Disney's doorstep, this is the first time a representation of Africa has been given that is not dependent on Western civilization: miraculously, there are no white saviors in this film. Perhaps this is because it is helmed by a director who actually lives in Uganda, and has a connection to the people and culture. This is why the film strikes so true: its depiction of Uganda is seen through the eyes of locals, and not just some touring Hollywood executives.

Let's hope that more good films are made in Uganda and the surrounding countries that represent it in cast and in story just as much as QUEEN OF KATWE does... You won't want to miss this film. Now playing at Midtown Cinema!

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