Queen of Katwe is not just a Disney film; it is a bold pronouncement of family, perseverence, and faith in a world full of discontent, frustration, and persecution. Starring the singular talents of David Oyelowo and Lupita Nyong’o, the film tells the true story of how one unlikely missionary taught chess to an absolutely unlikely young woman who became a champion. With grace, and a singular eye to the world of the slums in Kampala, Uganda, director Mira Nair shines a light on one teenager's rise to greatness and the community which nurtured her growth.
In chess the small one can become the big one.
Phiona Mutesi (Madina Nalwanga) appears to be less than extraordinary. Her father died, and her mother, Harriet (Nyong'o), has been left to scrap for what little she can collect, using her children to sell maize in the market for a pittance. Phiona is destined to follow in her older sister's footsteps, finding a man who will take care of her in exchange for her company, with no hope at school or furthering herself. But then Robert Katende (Oyelowo) finds himself unsuccessful in finding an engineering job, and joins the outreach ministry of a friend. Soon, he's teaching young people to play chess - and Phiona's life changes forever.
Chess helps us solve problems. It teaches us to make a plan. Use your minds and you will all find safety.
Initially frustrated by her inability to grasp the game and repeatedly losing to younger children like her brother, Phiona aims to give up but Katende gently encourages her to continue. Meanwhile, he's aimed at putting his village kids up against the best and the brightest city kids at the annual competition at King's College. It gives him a dream - and reminds him how he once overcame all of the odds.
Coach, you told us to make a plan but I fear things will never change.
This bold move - proving to be both humorous and exciting - vaults Phiona into a sense of herself, where she recognizes that chess may help her achieve more than she could have ever imagined. She finds a purpose - and a sense of friction with her mother, as she begins to gain more and more accolades. But throughout the film, Phiona's family (both by blood and by adoption) proves to be the source of her strength, that reminds her that she can become great, that where she is from does not have to define her.
While Phiona's family is faithful - as is Katende - the film's narrative (not preachy dialogue) reminds us of the story of God's call on the shepherd boy David in I Samuel: "But the LORD said to Samuel, "Do not consider his appearance or his height, for I have rejected him. The LORD does not look at the things people look at. People look at the outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart." Here, we see the way that Phiona's spirit and skill is more powerful than anyone could have imagined, from the love of her mother to the skills she is taught to the way she holds herself when challenged.
Queen of Katwe reminds us that sometimes, we must merely cross the board as pawns to be crowned Kings or Queens.