With Lupita Nyong’o and David Oyewolo
Phiona Mutesi is one of four children whose needs outstrip her put upon mother’s ability to meet them. Every day Phiona walks dirt roads barefooted to fetch water in oversized plastic containers, water used for cooking and bathing which sometimes get a pass. At one time the family is rendered homeless in order to pay a hospital bill. Phiona is a real person whose accomplishments with a chess board have been documented in a book by Tim Crothers.
Phiona and the other members of her chess club are played by amateurs, but the adults have been cast with brilliant actors. Lupita Nyong’o as Phiona’s mother exhibits the fear and mistrust of her daughter being taken away from her for a game she knows nothing about. Her coach, Robert Matende, has the gift of pushing without dampening spirits. Indeed, Coach is an almost saintly character who defers a high paying potentially corrupt job in order to continue doing good with the children who genuinely need him. David Oyewolo in the role simmers with goodness and patience. Even more saintly is his wife who accepts, no– embraces, –his mission to have meaningful work at low pay.
The actors wear bright colorful clothes and the music and victory dances lend charm to the scenes. You get the feeling of being there, in Uganda, in Kampala, in the very poor neighborhood of Katwe, but you also know that this movie has been adapted from a true story and that liberties were probably taken. The story moves along from one tournament to the next, and Phiona learns not only how to be a better chess player, but how to read. In Uganda if you can’t afford school fees, you can grow up uneducated.
As Phiona experiences victories, and travels to tournaments far from her home, and sleeps in deluxe hotels, she has to reckon with the conflict of going back home, and not really belonging any more to her culture. Her mother senses this, and the sadness in the film is palpable. One of the more touching scenes shows Phiona’s mother at first criticizing her for using the paraffin lamp at night to study her chess moves from a book, and then, later, she sells her wedding dress so that her daughter can buy more paraffin.
The supporting cast is strong, especially the boy who plays Phiona’s brother, Brian, and the older sister who has a troubled life of her own. What a functional family this is, and how enduring a character is Phiona, whose ability to think eight moves ahead of her opponent on a board game enables her to move her family in to a genuine home, and escape homelessness.