Queen of Katwe

A not-so-secret secret: I’m a total sucker for biographical sports dramas. Especially when they showcase the triumph of an underdog.

Case and point? During my senior season of field hockey at Hendrix, each player on the team wrote an inspirational quote of their choosing on a large piece of tape. Then, almost ceremoniously, each of us shared our selected pieces of wisdom and pasted the piece of tape on the flat-side of our sticks. We did this so that in moments requiring rugged grittiness – like in the last quarter of the game, in overtime, or in the final sprint for a goal – would have some kind of tangible marker for inspiration.

With little hesitation, I used a quote from Coach Bill Yoast in Remember the Titans: Leave no doubt!”

Remember the Titans – and films like it – are my jam.

So, earlier this summer, when I first saw the trailer for Queen of Katwe, to no surprise, I immediately put the release date in my google calendar. Lupita Nyong’o? Chess? Uganda? I’m so there.

With salted popcorn in hand, I saw Queen of Katwe on Monday and it was hardly what I expected it to be. Certainly, the story-line included soft spots about the rise of Phiona Mutesi’s chess game, queuing all the inspirational music and all the cheers. Throughout the story, chess is used as a larger metaphor for life. One of the Phion’as team members, when teaching Phiona how to play, says, “…in chess, the small one can become the big one.”

However, unlike a lot of Disney (or sports) films, the deepening of the story wasn’t hinged upon the sport and the victor’s success.

In actuality, the film showcased Phiona – a rising Chess champion from a poor community, Katwe, in Uganda – and the plethora of moving parts in her life. True to many communities in East Africa, the life of an individual is never just their own. Phiona’s success became her communities’ success, too. On the flip-side, her and her families’ struggles, at times, seemed insurmountable.

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I ached for the determination of Phiona’s mother, Harriet, as she struggled to find any kind of income for the family. When Phiona’s brother is in an accident, the family is soon after forced into eviction from their home. Scenes show the family walking the roads, homeless, and it’s impossible to ignore the injustices that people face every, single day. As Phiona’s story unfolds and she begins to attend chess sessions, Phiona’s sister leaves her family so that she can pursue a relationship with a man that will take care of her – until she gets pregnant. The particular challenges of being a woman, too, come to light, and it’s hard to process and fully capture in the allotted time.

Frankly, for the duration of the 2-hour show, I was a mess. Dabbing my eyes with a handful of tissues, I hadn’t quite expected the emotional, visceral reaction I had.

You see, by writing and producing a movie that focused not only a sports champion, but the tensions of their background, home life, and family, larger issues like poverty, racism, and opportunity come to the fore-front. That’s a really, really important thing to be done.

There are poignant moments, like when Phiona’s mom, Harriet, slowly acquiesces to the idea that her daughter has a chance for success. To show her support, she sells valuable fabric that she kept from her own mother so her daughter can purchase petrol for reading chess books with light when night arrives.

Another riveting scene occurs when a notorious East African rain storm devastates Phiona’s home. They have no roof and water rushes in, pulling the soil, dirt, and their belongings together like an after-thought.

The director of the film, Mira Nair, is an Indian-American woman (living part-time in Uganda) who decided to adapt the film after making a documentary about Robert Katende, Phiona’s chess coach and sports director for a local ministry. I found her portrayal of Katwe intriguing because it was neither denigrating nor romantic. Refreshing, considering Africa-focused media tends to err on one side or the other.

Sure, sports movies present some kind of climatic issue, but typically, it’s resolvable. In Queen of Katwe, though, the issues raised are pressing issues of justice. They don’t have easy answers, and yet, it’s incredibly important to consider, think about, and move to discussion and action by them.

I thought of my girls in Rwanda, who struggle frequently with the notion of where to be.

Robert Katende: [to Phiona] Sometimes the place you are used to is not the place you belong. You belong where you believe you belong. Where is that for you?

Should the girls pursue their academics with all their rigor, hoping to find a way to university? Or, do they return home to take care of their family?

Sometimes, these are the kinds of choices that are mutually exclusive, even when they shouldn’t be.

Brokenness isn’t just over there, though. Injustice has a lot of different faces. We can’t assume that viewing injustice (say, extreme poverty, for example) in Queen of Katwe is non-existent in our “world.”

Our “world” might instead be wracked with income inequity, systemic racism, or limitations on civic freedoms.It might be a wrong-doing from a neighbor. A difficulty in your family.

What I liked best about Queen of Katwe was its unapologetic look at the complications of families, success, mobility, and hope.

Additionally, it re-calibrated my heart, back again to what is important in life. I think we all need a steady reminder of this from time to time.

Check out the movie, when you can. You won’t be disappointed.

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