The Queen of Katwe

Film Reviews

A new movie directed by renowned Mira Neir shows a real life family action about a chess prodigy from Uganda’s slums. Kul Bhushan wrote the review.


A pawn can become a queen.

Here is a memorable quote from The Queen of Katwe, a new movie directed by Uganda-based Mira Nair.

This chess rule implies that even a small person, making steady and right moves, can rise to the top.

That’s what exactly happens to an unknown, neglected ten-year old slum girl, Phiona (Madina Nalwanga). Her world changes one day when she meets Robert Katende (David Oyelowo) at a social welfare project.

Watching this movie was like walking through the slums of Mathare Valley or Kibera in Nairobi although the movie is about Katwe, a slum on the outskirts of Kampala.

With deft coaching and constant encouragement from Katende, Phiona rises to play in international tournaments to become a Woman Candidate Master after her winning performances at the World Chess Olympiads.

A key role is played by the Kenyan Hollywood star, Lupita Nyong’o, as the mother of Phiona who struggles against extreme poverty to keep the family together.

A real-life family action about a chess prodigy from Uganda’s slums, this movie premiered at the recent Toronto International Film Festival and was hailed for its realistic drama. Now it is released worldwide and proving popular with youngsters who want to make a mark in the world with their potential talents.


Wellknown Indian Diaspora director Mira Nair made big news with her new movie. Among her best-known films are Mississippi Masala, The Namesake, the Golden Lion-winning Monsoon Wedding and Salaam Bombay!, nominated for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film.

She was honoured with a Padma Bhushan in 2012 by India.

Mira Nair set up a film school in Kampala named ‘Maisha Film Lab’; maisha means ‘life’ in Swahili.

‘If we don’t tell our story, no one else will’ is its motto. Screenwriting, directing, producing, cinematography, editing, sound recording, and acting courses are provided. It germinated in 1991 when Mira was shooting Mississippi Masala and realized that Uganda’s rich storytelling tradition was not reflected in movies.

With the help of the international film community, she founded ‘Maisha’ and up to now more than 500 participants have been trained in addition to holding film festivals.

The Queen production team auditioned nearly 700 girls for the part of Phiona before they settled for 15-year-old Ugandan dancer Madina Nalwanga in a community dance class.

All this is reflected in the high production values of The Queen of Katwe in which Lupita shines with her controlled emotions and David Oyelowo is no less impressive with his subdued passion for excellence.

This slice of nasty, basic and raw life commands your involvement.

Kul BhushanKul Bhushan is a regular contributor

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First published in on October 23, 2016

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