Spoiler alert: The following review may reveal some details from the movie.
What do you think of when you hear the word “Disney”? A prince trapped in the body of a beast until he finds true love? A kingdom seemingly trapped in an eternal winter? Or a young lion battling his uncle to restore justice and claim his throne?
Well, forget everything you thought you knew about Disney because Queen of Katwe, Disney’s latest release, bears little resemblance to its animated predecessors. This live-action movie, directed by Mira Nair, is based on the true story of Phiona Mutesi, a young girl who grew up in the slum of Katwe, Uganda.
Her single mother Nakku Harriet gets up early each day to buy scrawny ears of corn that her children must sell on Katwe’s congested streets. The family are often homeless and move from place to place throughout the movie. This is the only life that Phiona knows— and can aspire to—until she meets Robert Katende.
Robert is part of the Agape Sanctuary Ministry and begins teaching chess to the children of Katwe, forming the Pioneers Chess Club. He soon discovers that Phiona is a chess prodigy. Robert becomes a role model and father figure to Phiona and the other children in his club and believes that chess is an opportunity for them to rise above their circumstances.
Phiona discovers that if a pawn, generally thought of as the weakest piece in a game of chess, can make it to the end of the chessboard, that piece can be exchanged for a more important one—even the queen.
“In chess, the small one can become the big one,” another club member tells her. “That’s why I like it.”
"Very soon, men will start coming after me—where’s my safe square?"
But Queen of Katwe goes beyond being the classic tale of an underdog’s rise to fame. It delves into adult themes—racism, poverty and the things you might do if you were driven by desperation. It avoids being overly sentimental or cliché because it is a raw, poignant and unsanitised look at the very real challenges some people face.
In one of the film’s most moving scenes, Phiona boldly asks her coach, “Very soon, men will start coming after me—where’s my safe square?” The film again depicts the vulnerability of women when her mother is told that she should look for a ‘sugar daddy’ if she wants to provide for her children. But neither of these scenes detract from Phiona and Nakku Harriet’s strong and determined personalities.
Queen of Katwe is not overtly spiritual but frequently makes reference to God and faith. Phiona and her family are depicted saying grace before their meals. And her coach leads in prayer before a big chess tournament.
Even the tough issues we wrestle with as Christians are addressed. Throughout the film, Phiona visibly struggles with shame about her background, pride in her own abilities and her tendency to give up when she fails. At one stage, she even wonders out loud whether God has forgotten her and her family. But with Robert’s tutelage and encouragement, she begins to see the significance of persistence, determination and hope—lessons we all need to learn as followers of God.
I’m reminded of what the apostle Paul said to the believers in Rome, “Not only so, but we also glory in our sufferings because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character; hope. And hope does not put us to shame because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us” (Romans 3:3-5).