TIFF 2016 Review: ‘Queen of Katwe’ – Don’t miss this one, en passant!

Queen of Katwe

‘Queen of Katwe’ Review: Don’t miss this one, en passant!

Based on a book by Tim Crothers, Queen of Katwe tells the story of Phiona (Madina Nalwanga), a 10-year-old girl from Kampala, Uganda, who is inspired by the game of chess. One day, Robert Katende (David Oyelowo) sees Phiona spying on a group of boys playing chess and presents her with an opportunity to join them. While reluctant at first, Phiona joins the team and begins to learn the game of chess under Robert’s supervision. Impressed by Phiona’s skills, Robert sees this as an opportunity for her to live a better life. He enters Phiona and his other students into various chess competitions across the globe hoping that these opportunities will lead Phiona and others to better life. 

Queen of Katwe is an inspiring and heartwarming film about overcoming obstacles and achieving your dreams. Yes, we have seen films with plots like this before, but there is a lot about within this tale that stands out from previous films with similar themes. Queen of Katwe features several strong female characters, noteworthy performances from an all-black cast, and makes a statement about impoverished countries. Let me not forget to mention that it’s an incredible true life story that somehow makes the game of chess interesting and entertaining.

Queen of Katwe

Just like several other Disney films from earlier this year, newcomer Nalwanga shines in the lead role. I always find it refreshing to see two amazing actors like Nyong’o and Oyelowo star alongside an up and coming young star. Nalwanga owns every scene and her character Phiona grows and develops as the film moves on. Phiona faces a lot of obstacles and her story is more than just a girl wanting to play chess. The mother and daughter relationship between Phiona and her mother Nakku Harriet (Lupita Nyong’o) is complex because it isn’t just a mother looking out for her child but about her life in an impoverished neighborhood. Their relationship is a strong foundation for how Phiona feels and behaves. The scenes between Nalwanga and Nyong’o are emotionally powerful and are conveyed with real conviction. The same also rings true when the story focuses on Phiona’s relationship with her siblings especially her older sister Night (Taryn Kyaze).

While there is no denying that Nalwanga is the star of the film, David Oyelowo’s performance shouldn’t be overlooked. Oyelowo is so incredible in Queen of Katwe, that I would even argue that it is worthy of an Oscar nomination. His character Robert is faced with so many obstacles that stand in his way, yet he continues to push forth to help Phiona and his other students. Robert is truly selfless and even jeopardized his own personal life and career to help these young children lead a better life. There are several scenes between Robert and his students where he pushes them to stay strong and don’t let their judgment be clouded by the way that others see them. The standout scene of this is when the team travels to King’s College, and everyone judges them.

Queen of Katwe

The film also features a large supporting cast of young child actors that are all incredible. While I could take up several more paragraphs discussing each character in greater detail, I want to acknowledge that all these child actors are gifted and I can only hope that they go on to do other feature length films. I do have to make mention Ethan Nazario Lubega who played Benjamin in the film. This young boy has so much charisma that I will be stunned if he doesn’t go on to become a lead in another film. He was definitely the film’s scene stealer as he always delivered his lines in such an endearing manner. You just want to hug the kid!

Queen of Katwe is a great little film that stands out among other inspirational stories that have come before it. The impressive cast, storytelling, and inspirational depiction of hope and believing in oneself make this one of the year’s must-see films. It is so refreshing to see multiple films in 2016 feature primarily black actors and manage to showcase their talent with a well-crafted story. With films like Queen of Katwe, Moonlight, Birth of a Nation, and Fences, I am so happy that big Hollywood studios are finally breaking down and tackling race and making great films with a lot of diversity. Queen of Katwe is a film that can be appreciated by everyone, no matter where you are from or your skin color. It is a great family film from the studio that does it best.

Scott “Movie Man’ Menzel’s final rating for Queen of Katwe is a 8 out of 10.

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