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Queen of Katwe: A chess drama honest in its intent to inspire

Madina Nalwanga is Phiona Mutesi in Disney's Queen of Katwe, the vibrant true story of a young girl from the streets of rural Uganda whose world rapidly changes when she is introduced to the game of chess.

Edward Echwalu

Queen of Katwe
Written by
William Wheeler
Directed by
Mira Nair
Madina Nalwanga, David Oyelowo and Lupita Nyong’o

Consider the chess movie. As a film subject, chess is clearly not as popular as boxing (Box Office Mojo lists 50 boxing films), baseball (there are 47 of those), football (44) or even golf (10). The chess movie is the nerd of sports films.

Yet as the new drama Queen of Katwe proves, chess movies hit all the beats of sports films: There are preternaturally talented rookies and grizzled seasoned pros; there are inspirational coaches and dark nights of self-doubt; there are marches toward glory, tense final matchups, agonies of defeat and thrills of victory.

All great sports movies are metaphors. Golf is about a person's battle with him/herself for perfection. Boxing shows us the value of withstanding the pain of life. Football is guts and grit, baseball is America, and so on. But because chess is the brainiest of sports, it's also the most malleable metaphor.

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Searching for Bobby Fischer (1993), the directorial debut of screenwriter Steven Zaillain (The Night Of), is about chess as an artistic endeavour. The real-life, seven-year-old prodigy at its centre, Josh Waitzkin (Max Pomeranc), wants to win, but he also wants to attend school and have friends and go fishing; he wants to be kind, not contemptuous. He's a vehicle through which we ask big questions: Does doing something at the highest level, as Fischer did, require sacrificing the rest of one's life? Do art and fame have to lead to madness?

Pawn Sacrifice (2014), directed by Ed Zwick, uses the chessboard manoeuvrings of Fisher (Tobey Maguire) and his Soviet rival Boris Spassky (Liev Schreiber) as a metaphor for the machinations of their governments during the Cold War – and furthermore, as a warning against how big institutions pressure and manipulate people to their own ends. Fischer may have had a predilection for paranoia, the film suggests, but the madness wasn't all in his head.

In Queen of Katwe – written by William Wheeler, based on a 2012 book by Tim Crothers, and directed by Mira Nair – chess is a metaphor for self-actualization and escape. (It opens in select cities Friday after triumphant showings at the Toronto International Film Festival, where audiences voted it second-runner-up for the People's Choice Award.)

It's the true story of Phiona Mutesi (newcomer Madina Nalwanga), who learned to play chess in one of the world's most unforgiving slums, Katwe, in Kampala, Uganda, and rose to the level of Woman Candidate Master, earning herself an education and a reprieve from grinding poverty in the process. "In chess," a fellow student tells Phiona, baldly but effectively stating the theme, "the little one can become the big one."

Phiona's single mother, Harriet (Lupita Nyong'o), had her children young; now, trapped in Katwe, she struggles to feed her family by selling corn on the streets. Phiona's older sister Night (Taryn Kyaze) thinks flashy boyfriends are her escape. But when Phiona stumbles upon a chess club for children run by Robert Katende (David Oyelowo), a spiritual man committed to helping kids reach their potential, he quickly realizes she has that innate, ineffable ability for the game. Will he be able to convince the chess powers to let his kids compete? Will Harriet allow Phiona to reach beyond her grasp, at the risk of breaking her heart?

The answers are never in doubt, but there's shameless, feel-good pleasure in watching them play out. For one thing, the script is honest and direct in its desire to be inspirational. For another, Nair (who lives in Uganda) shot the film in Katwe, on the streets where the story occurred, and peopled it with local children, novice actors who underwent a two-month movie boot camp before the cameras rolled. Rather than flinch from the issues of poverty and teen pregnancy that dogged Phiona, it confronts them head-on, setting her accomplishment in a real-world context. By the end credits, when the actors appear with their actual counterparts, the lump in your throat is earned, not forced.

As for the chess itself, you don't have to understand the game to find it intensely suspenseful. That's the beauty of a chess movie. You get to watch two opponents lock eyes; you get to see them thinking, whether they win with beauty or lose with grace. In that small chessboard, populated by a handful of pieces, there are infinite worlds – shaped by rules, yes, but as limitless as the soul.

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