An ambitious young man on the other side of the world is torn between his dream job as an engineer and his mission to help impovershed youth succeed – To Sir With Love, 1967
David Oyelowo as Robert Katende and Madina Nalwanga as Phiona Mutesi in “The Queen of Katwe.”
One of my favorite films is 1967’s To Sir, With Love, based on the semi-autobiographical novel of the same name by E.R. Braithwaite (…what can I say: I love old films). In it, Sidney Poitier plays an out of work engineer who takes a position teaching street youths that no one else can manage.
Fast-forward to 2016. Disney’s new film,Queen of Katwe is based a book by Tim Crothers. In the film – also based on a true story – Robert Katende, an out of work engineer, takes a position teaching street youths that no one else seems to care about… but that’s where the uncanny similarity ends. Robert has something that “Sir” didn’t have: a brilliant chess prodigy named Phiona.
Queen of Katwe is based on the incredible, heart-warming, true story of 10-year-old Phiona Mutesi, a girl from the streets of rural Uganda whose world rapidly changes when she is introduced to the game of chess. With Katende’s training, and the support from her family and community, Phiona is instilled with the confidence and determination to pursue her dream of becoming an international chess champion.
(At least) 3 verses of scripture came to mind while watching the film:
Matthew 25:40 – And the King will answer and say to them, ‘Assuredly, I say to you, inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these My brethren, you did it to Me;
Psalm 23:5 – You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; and
Proverbs 18:16 – A man’s gift makes room for him, and brings him before great men (all NKJV).
For Phiona Mutesi (played by beautiful newcomer Madina Nalwanga), life in the impoverished slum of Katwe in Kampala, Uganda, is a constant struggle, Her mother, Harriet (played by Lupita Nyong’o), is fiercely determined to take care of her family and works tirelessly selling vegetables in the market to make sure her children are fed and have a roof over their heads. When Phiona meets Robert Katende , a soccer-player-turned-Christian-missionary who teaches chess to local children (played by David Oyelowo), she is captivated (plot, courtesy of Disney.com).
Queen of Katwe picks up the mantle of the wildly successful To Sir, With Love; showing how far the love and vision of a good teacher can take a child, and how that love can ignite genius: even a child with no hope or vision of their own.
Forced to drop out of school after the death of her father and sister, Phiona did not read or write; yet she has the remarkable skill, analytical acumen, and quiet genius to master the game of chess. “Anybody can be taught moves and how to react to those moves, but to reason like she does at her age is a gift that gives her the potential for greatness,” said Dina Kagramanov, a Canadian national champion who Phiona plays against and is represented in the film. Phiona finds her “greatness” in mastering the strategies of chess, in spite of the fact that she lacks education, and is surrounded by unspeakable poverty and hopelessness.
The real Phiona Mutesi in a game of chess.
The remarkable story first came to the attention of Walt Disney executive Tendo Nagenda after reading about Phiona in the ESPN article. Nagenda, who is of Ugandan descent, knew that it would make a great movie, and became its champion within the ranks of Disney. The film is groundbreaking in that it provides an inside look at life in an African country; specifically of those who live in poverty: a first for a Disney film. Yet, its triumph-over-adversity theme is quintessentially Disney, and it brings to mind popular films like Slumdog Millionaire, which took place in the slums of Mumbai. An amazing fact about Queen of Katwe is that none of the children in the film – including its star, Madina Nalwanga – have ever acted before.
See Disney’s Queen of Katwe, a wonderful, inspiring film for the entire family. Directed by Mira Nair, the film stars Golden Globe® nominee David Oyelowo, Oscar® winner and Tony Award® nominee Lupita Nyong’o and Madina Nalwanga.
Like To Sir, With Love and Phiona Mutesi herself, Queen of Katwe has all that it takes to become a triumphant success. This timeless classic is a testament to the resilience and power of the spirit.
Queen of Katweopens in U.S. theaters on SEPTEMBER 23, 2016.
SEE THE OFFICIAL TRAILER HERE:
 – “The Game of Her Life”, ESPN The Magazine, Jan. 10, 2011. http://www.espn.com/espn/news/story?page=Mag15gameofherlife . Accessed 9-21-2016.