(Today’s NaPoWriMo prompt was for a poem that incorporates the terminology of sports or games, and this film was the first to come to mind.)
Who showed the grandmasters to break and blockade?
Who taught the young hotshots before they were paid?
Somebody who saw that this amateur played
With potential to rival the greats.
No pro cut his teeth in the big leagues to start;
No novice knew every play tactic by heart.
The champions once were unversed in their art,
Like those whose achievement awaits.
To round the bases,
To win the races
To queen the pawn,
To reach for fame upon your name,
To spike the ball,
Slam dunk them all,
To hit a home run,
To say you’ve won,
You first must dare to play the game.
MPAA rating: PG
This inspirational sports drama (yes, apparently chess can be considered a sport) didn’t make many waves when Disney quietly released it last September, but it’s a finely crafted member of a genre that often falls into feel-good clichés. In 2009, 10-year-old Phiona Mutesi (Madina Nalwanga) had little expectation for her life other than selling maize for her mother (Lupita Nyong’o) to prolong their dirt-floor subsistence living in Uganda, but the encouragement of sports coach Robert Katende (David Oyelowo) awakens in her not only a surprising talent for chess but a hope for a better life.
Queen of Katwe sidesteps the “white savior” accusations that similar films often bear (Finding Forrester, The Blind Side) by possessing an almost exclusively black cast, with Nyong’o and Oyelowo excelling as loving mentors who sometimes clash over how best to nurture Phiona’s potential. The film includes quite a bit that other underdog stories have, but it does it well, following the various stages of Phiona’s competitive development, from not believing herself worthy of attention to obsession and success to overconfidence to despair to rewarded effort. Again, whereas an American version of this true story might have stressed a racial divide between Phiona and the chess-playing elites, her struggle is instead against the class divide between her native slums of Katwe and the more educated and comfortable social status that seems out of reach for people like her.
Perhaps the film of which Queen of Katwe most reminded me was Akeelah and the Bee, another inspirational tale of an encouraging coach fostering in a young black girl an intellectual talent that might have gone unnoticed without his intervention. Akeelah and the Bee is a better and more entertaining film, in my opinion, but Queen of Katwe has the advantage of having real events and people behind its story, who we actually get to see during the obligatory where-are-they-now segment before the end credits. Plus, the presence of Christianity is refreshingly forthright in the faith of many characters with Katende’s coaching being a part of a Christian ministry, but it never becomes evangelistic or preachy. As admirable as Queen of Katwe is, it’s a bit too drawn-out and overlong in places; one sequence of Phiona’s mother buying paraffin for her late-night studying could have been cut down to half the number of scenes, for example. Even so, Phiona’s journey is worth rooting for, punctuated by some brilliant words of wisdom from her coach and a constant hope that dedication can lead to triumph and self-improvement.
Best line: (Robert Katende, to Phiona) “Sometimes the place you are used to is not the place where you belong.”
Rank: List Runner-Up
© 2017 S.G. Liput
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