4 Stars – Inspiring
Disney Studios knows how to make human interest stories better than anyone. William Wheeler (screenplay), Tim Crothers, and Mira Nair (director) have brought to the screen a simple, deeply moving true story about Phiona Mutesi (Madina Nalwanga). In 2012, Phiona was a young girl from Uganda who rose from the slums of Katwe to become a world-renown master grand player of the game of chess.
Told with a quiet honesty, Phiona’s life is shown over a five-year period rising from complete poverty to the heights of notoriety through the kindness and mentoring of a small, Christian program in Uganda known as Sports Outreach. Mentored by Madina Nalwanga (David Oyelowo), a counsellor for Sports Outreach, Phiona is coaxed off the street into a program that reached out to the poor to teach them discipline and concentration through the complex art of learning chess. What happens along the way is more than a learned skill. They discover that Phiona is a gifted thinker with innate mathematical skills that God reveals to her through these simple games.
The harsh reality of living in the slums outside of Kampala is a reminder to most of us that the poverty that plagues much of the world makes the situation of the poor in the western world seem somewhat trivial. Every day is a trial to determine who lives and who dies. Most go to bed very hungry and education is only for the rich. Multigenerational poverty is a way of life with little hope of escaping it.
Phiona’s mother, Nakku Harriet (Lupita Nyong'o), is a product of this poverty and sees little possibility for her daughter. For most girls, their only hope of survival is to essentially give themselves to any man who has some money and is willing to take care of them. Boys are not much better off, but the few programs such as Sports Outreach that do exist are often oriented towards the interests of these young men.
If there is a point of irony in this story, it is that some of the founders and supporters of Sports Outreach are from my own community. One of these students from Uganda has lived at my home for the last three summers, and watched the movie with me. His stories corroborate the sense of desperation that can exist on the street, but also the hope that comes from the Christian ministries that reach out to the children in their care. The bus that is in the movie is the same bus that he would ride on to soccer games back home. These stories bring tears to your eyes and are a deep reminder that we have a responsibility to bring compassion and care wherever we can, and not to just assume that this is someone else’s concern.
Phiona’s story shows the multidimensional impacts of both poverty and the pitfalls that come from trying to help. Once Phiona is given the chance to succeed, the resulting sense of expectation that comes from the rest of the family is profound. Phiona’s mother tearfully shares that once Phiona experiences the broader world with its tantalizing and seductive qualities, it will be almost impossible for her to come back to the world of poverty that she has always known. For Nakku Harriet, that means that she will lose her daughter in the process and Phiona will in all likelihood lose her relationship with her family.
Part of the beauty of the Queen of Katwe is that the story has a happy ending. Phiona not only succeeds on a world stage, but she is able to buy her mother a life that is filled with peace. In no small part, this comes through the influence and mentoring of the pastors of Sports Outreach who gave everyone a grounding in faith and a vision for mutual love and compassion. This is a film that every family should see and discuss together.
- In the crushing grasp of multigenerational poverty a vast majority of gifted, beloved people are suffering innocently. What part are you going to take in finding solutions?
- The ministries that reach into street culture to rescue the children are vast, such as Street Child United, similar to Sports Outreach. What programs are you supporting?
- The deeper commitments that bring families out of poverty require a person to care for more than just their own individual well-being. How do we help people to care about others?