When I first heard of this movie, I assumed it would receive several Oscar nominations. That buzz was apparent at the Toronto International Film Festival this past fall. Unfortunately, the Academy chose to bypass the movie.
Disappointing but not discouraging enough to prevent millions of people worldwide from seeing the movie on the big screen and now on DVD.
Set in Africa, the movie has an entirely black-speaking cast and focuses on a five-year period in the life of Phiona Mutesi (brilliantly played by Madina Nalwanga), an illiterate Ugandan girl living a hardscrabble life in a Kampala slum.
The trajectory of Phiona’s life changes when she walks into a small classroom, enticed by an offer of free porridge. There, she discovers the game of chess and a mentor in Robert Katende (played by David Oyelowo). She demonstrates an extraordinary talent for the game and easily learns the rules and strategies.
Throughout the film, many life lessons are imparted, some from Katende, others from the colorful cast of characters.
In his first encounter with Phiona, Katende watches the newcomer physically attack the chess kids who mock her. Instead of reprimanding her, he comments, “This is a place for fighters.” Other chess/life lessons include believing in yourself, accepting challenges, “resetting the pieces,” and overcoming defeat.
The tiny girl assigned to teach Phiona the basics shares her love of the game: “In chess, the small one can become the big one. That’s why I like it.”
In five short years, Phiona achieves what many consider an impossible dream for an impoverished African child: Flying to international chess tournaments, enrolling in higher education, and buying a house for her mother (played by Lupita Nyong’o).
Director Mira Nair has succeeded in recreating Phiona Mutesi’s empowering journey while skillfully capturing the intensity of life in Katwe.
A must-see film that will inspire and motivate.