I’ve never been anywhere in the vast continent of Africa, but someday I would like to visit Uganda.
A little bit of my heart and brain has been invested there ever since my senior year of college, when I first met a beautiful lady named Suzan who hails from Lira in Northern Uganda. Suzan met the older brother of my college roommate Rachel while he was studying abroad in Uganda; as of this writing, Suzan and Phil are living in Lira, married, with two gorgeous children, running an amazing organization called Solidarity Uganda.
Because Rae was not only my college roommate but is also my Harry Potter mentor, BFF, and pen pal, I follow all her exploits and basically her family is my extended family. I’ve felt so lucky to have even a thin connection to such a vastly different part of the world; to see photos of Rae’s visit to Lira to see her nephew and niece, to hear Suzan’s perspective on poverty and politics, to read Phil’s musings on community building.
I guess I’m musing on all of this to say that watching Queen of Katwe felt the tiniest bit familiar and beautiful in a way I wasn’t expecting. This newest effort of Indian director Mira Nair (The Reluctant Fundamentalist) was largely filmed in the slums of Katwe, a region of south-central Uganda. It’s a beautiful film, filled with color, style and the pops of vibrancy that make up the people and culture of Katwe.
Children sell maize in the streets, into car windows. Boys of questionable intent race by on boda bodas. Baths happen sometimes and sometimes they don’t. It seems like an unlikely breeding ground for chess champions, but Robert Katende (David Oyelowo, Selma) has something to say about that. Katende spends his afternoons coaching both soccer and teaching chess for the children of Katwe.
Many of the chess hopefuls are young, small, or afraid to play soccer because their families couldn’t afford a doctor visit in case of injury. These are kids too poor to be sent to school. Things really get going when Phiona Mutesi (played by Ugandan native Madina Nalwanga) joins the group and Katende discovers her potential to be an absolutely killer chess player.
Thus begins a familiar-feeling story of triumph and loss, lessons learned, and much else you might find in a movie about sports, competition, and a young prodigy. Over the next few years, Phiona and her teammates find a way to travel to chess competitions (both national and international) and her skill continues to grow (to the befuddlement of many boys). The children experience luxuries (like ketchup!) for the first time – but remain without pretense, singing their home songs and sleeping in a real pile rather than on fancy separate beds. Laughter, prayer, and stories help sustain their little community as they face nerves, fear, and homesickness.
Mostly, their idea of belonging is challenged.
“You belong where you believe you belong,” Coach insists. “Where is that for you, Phiona?” This insistence brings her one step closer to stepping into her dream to join the class of chess Masters.
Lupita Nyong’o (The Jungle Book, Star Wars: The Force Awakens) as Phiona’s mother Nakku Harriet shines particularly bright. Widowed and struggling to care for her four surviving children, Nakku is fierce and proud, and Nyong’o plays her with the beauty and subtlety we’ve come to love her for. We see her in the lowest, most difficult dredges of single motherhood – something truly frightening in such an uncertain and poor area of the world. Like my friend Suzan, she is elegant, sassy, and strong – unwavering in her heart for her family, even when hardships come.
Oyelowo’s performance is also strong, as are those of the children. Mostly, I was in awe of them when I remembered that they’re all based on real people, real stories. There’s a distinct burden to telling a true story well – and this cast and crew shouldered the task bravely.
It got me thinking…why do we make so many movies about sports, games, and competitions? What do we gain from them? It’s not like there’s really much suspense. There’s only two outcomes in any game.
I think it must have to do with all the wins and losses we face every day, even in small ways. It takes a lifetime to learn to lose bravely, or to win gracefully. These stories, one by one, encourage us along the way. These stories give us hope.