Too often movies are judged as success or failure simply on the amount of money generated by theater, advertising, and merchandise revenue. With those factors typically making up the outcome measurements for modern films, most chess movies are doomed to commercial failure from the start or face relegation to independent distributors. Last year’s Pawn Sacrifice is a perfect example of the challenges faced by chess films. The film opened to high hopes, received mixed reviews, premiered almost two years after completion, received a positive review here on Campfire Chess, but has since disappeared into the abyss of forgotten films and misbegotten biopics. In reflecting on Pawn Sacrifice prior to reviewing The Queen of Katwe, I realized that Pawn Sacrifice simply does not have the creative longevity to remain at the forefront of modern chess cinema. Perhaps some of the early reflections (including my own) were the result of hype and excessive expectations that were ultimately underwhelmed and left disappointed. That is why when I went to see the film reviewed in this article, I was cautiously optimistic about the outcome and determined to guard myself against personal biases.
The Disney biopic The Queen of Katwe, which is based on the life story of Phiona Mutesi, premiered in theaters across America on Friday night and yours truly was there with my beloved to watch the film. I was pleasantly surprised to see that we were among 40-50 moviegoers in the theater for the 1845L showing. In contrast, Pawn Sacrifice was less than 15 the night of its local premier. After suffering through a collection of disappointing trailers (and one about dogs that had me bawling) the movie finally began and we were treated to just over two hours of Disney’s interpretation and dramatization of the life and trials of Phiona Mutesi.
Capturing Ugandan Struggle and Pain
Because this was a Disney movie, I was interested to see to what lengths the producers would go to portray the depths of pain and suffering endured by Phiona and her family in the Katwe slums. It only took a few minutes to realize that the producers had used subtle nuances present in the daily lives of Kampala’s slum citizens to maintain a sense of vibrancy while showing a deep and resounding pain felt by Phiona and her family. Singing and dancing for personal pleasure soon gave way to singing and dancing in the streets for money to buy dinner. The daily struggles presented throughout the film were never lost in the mixture of chess and personal victories, but those struggles also never whitewashed the sense of achievement and growth brought on by Phiona’s challenges and triumphs.
Phiona was played expertly by Madina Nalwanga and her coach by David Oyelowo, but it was without a doubt the exceptional Lupita Nyong’o who played Phiona’s mother that stole the show. There were times throughout the film that I wondered if the story was actually about Phiona’s mother and less about Phiona and her brother. Yet, these powerful moments where we were treated to following Phiona’s mother through her daily struggles provided the audience with a wonderful context for the challenges that Phiona would face. Why would a mother hesitate to accept scholarships or growth opportunities for their child? These questions and many others were answered by the unique way in which the filmmakers frame the challenges, failures, and triumphs of Phiona in the parallel worlds of chess and life through the eyes of her mother. It become apparent early on that Phiona is certainly her mother’s child; a woman who refused to roll over or accept that she was not capable of rising to a higher level of achievement.
Are We Still Looking for Bobby?
It is hard to write a chess film review without comparing said film to the classic Searching for Bobby Fischer, but doing so with The Queen of Katwe sets a new precedent in chess cinema. That 1991 film staring Joe Mantegna and Max Pomeranc is often seen as a benchmark for chess filmmaking and storytelling. Many people, including myself, hold it dear as one of the best movies about chess ever made. Yet, I could not help but wonder as I watched The Queen of Katwe with my wife, if we were not watching what could become the Searching for Bobby Fischer of the 21st century.
Earlier this week I wrote about how the Daily Caller wrote a hit piece on Phiona Mutesi quoting anonymous Grandmasters and others leading up to the film’s release. The intent of that article was to paint her as a subpar chess player undeserving of any sort of international attention. Yet, such language and disrespect is not levied at young Josh Waitzkin in press releases for Searching. Josh was (and still is) considered a legitimate chess prodigy although he has mostly given it up to pursue other activities. In her native country of Uganda and among the most powerful chess professionals in Africa, Phiona is a chess force to be reckoned with. The hit article certainly weighed on me as I watched the film. Fortunately, I was pleased to see that the filmmakers had treated Phiona and the chess world with an enormous amount of respect.
Phiona expresses her desire to be a chess master and receives both good and bad advice throughout the film, but never is the idea of rising to the top of the chess world presented as an option to Phiona without an enormous amount of personal commitment and support. Even when Phiona attends the Moscow Olympiad, her defeat becomes the crux of the film’s final act in which she finds herself struggling to play for fear of losing.
Ultimately, The Queen of Katwe exposes something about Phiona Mutesi that is often lost in stats, PGN files, and ELO references: her humanity. The film expertly balances the philosophy and challenges of playing chess but also shows how chess can bring out the truth of human struggle and triumph. Such stories are often overplayed in cinema, but here it is professionally mixed to where the chess victory is never really undermined by the struggles that it seeks to solve.
A Final Verdict…
The Queen of Katwe was much better than I had anticipated and it tugged at the heart strings in a way that only Disney can manage. It was easy to be empathetic with Phiona and her relatives facing daily starvation and deplorable conditions in the Katwe slums. The outstanding performances combined with some great chess scenes that were obviously supervised by chess professionals that cared about how the game was represented on screen, it is a film that is definitely worth seeing. Yet, I think that only time will tell if it has the longevity to remain a classic in chess cinema. The story of Phiona Mutesi is still ongoing, but that is the crux of the film’s entire premise. Life never stops, and those places were are used to are not always the places we are meant to be.
I only hope that Phiona and this film continue to inspire people to pick up our game.