BFI #LFF 2016: QUEEN OF KATWE Film Review

Walt Disney Pictures brings together an extraordinary cast for QUEEN OF KATWE, a remarkable true story about one girl’s grace and steely determination to create a better life for herself and her family.

Based on Tim Crothers’ book THE QUEEN OF KATWE: ONE GIRL’S TRIUMPHANT PATH TO BECOMING A CHESS CHAMPION and inspired by a true story, QUEEN OF KATWE tells the story of Phiona Mutesi, an illiterate girl from Uganda who pursues her dream of becoming a chess champion.

The story begins in 2007 with a young Phiona (Madina Nalwanga) living in the slums of Uganda with her mother Nakku Harriet (Lupita Nyong’o) brothers and sister. During the day, the family sell corn on the streets to make money. But when local sports coach Robert Katende (David Oyelowo) invites Phiona to join his chess club, she finds a purpose in the sport and she begins to see the game as a way to lift her family out of their grinding poverty.

Thoughtful, charming, and heartwarming, QUEEN OF KATWE is a powerful true tale of one girl’s determination to escape poverty by becoming a chess champion. Disney has a long track record of turning real-life competitive sports stories into endearing and inspirational family-friendly dramas and QUEEN OF KATWE is no exception. Directed with vision and heart, Mira Nair has created a film with an indelibly enchanting tone which rises above the usual underdog sports cliches to be both affecting and distinctive.


Newcomer Madina Nalwanga is a likable and compelling as Phiona, capturing the character’s quiet determination and intelligence without losing sight of her vulnerability. She not only conveys Phiona’s uncanny abilities, but also her fears and trepidation as she dreams of a life outside the slums of Katwe.

David Oyelowo excels as Phiona’s coach Robert Katende, bringing a joyous and infectious enthusiasm to the role while Lupita Nyong’o shines as Phiona’s mother Nakku Harriet. Nyong’o acts with wisdom and maturity as the proud widow and mother of four, displaying a world of emotions with a single glance.

While director Nair works hard to forge an incandescent visual style with the film, at times the overall texture of the movie feels a little too glossy, making everything seem a little too staged and fake, particularly Phiona’s hometown and the streets of Kampala. The film also becomes somewhat melodramatic towards the latter stages.

That said, there is enough beauty, compassion and spirit in QUEEN OF KATWE to lift your spirits and you can’t help but feel inspired by this remarkable tale.

3.5 out of 5 stars

QUEEN OF KATWE screens at the 60th BFI London Film Festival on 9 October and is released in UK cinemas on 21 October 2016.