by Eleanor Pritchett (Arts & Culture Editor)
On Wednesday, September 7, Walt Disney Studios hosted a pre-screening of the new movie Queen of Katwe at Yale University and several other universities across the country. Professor Tavia Nyong’o (Theater Studies and American Studies) introduced the movie to the packed theater at Bow Tie Criterion Cinemas on Temple Street, telling the audience that his cousin, Academy Award-winner and star of the movie Lupita Nyong’o DRA ’12, would be proud to see her school like this. He took a selfie with the crowd to send her.
Queen of Katwe is a movie about chess which casts itself like a movie about football. It tells the true story of Phiona Mutesi (Madina Nalwanga), a Ugandan girl from the slums of Katwe who stumbles upon a children’s chess club while looking for food, stays, and quickly shows herself to be a prodigy, almost immediately becoming the girls’ chess champion of Uganda. The movie also centers her mother Harriet (Lupita Nyong’o) and her coach Robert (David Oyelowo), who fight in their own ways for Phiona’s happiness.
The audience for the screening was evidence that this representation was a key part of the importance of the movie: the mostly Black, largely African crowd laughed, cooed, and sighed with the movie.
The film was shot entirely in Katwe and Johannesburg, keeping it grounded to the story it was telling. In this way, it is a refreshingly remarkably genuine movie that loves its setting and its characters, and treats the people around its edges with care and respect, never condescending to them or to its audience. It’s a children’s movie that teaches kids to persevere through hardship and self-doubtbeautiful lessons through incredible performances by Black women – specifically, African women. It uses a story unique to these often unsung people to teach audiences a lesson of their own self-worth.
“Sometimes where you’re used to isn’t where you belong,” Phiona’s coach tells her. Throughout, Phiona struggles with not belonging either in her home of Katwe or in the moneyed and educated world of competitive chess. Her coach’s and her mother’s love, along with her own sticktuitiveness, propel her through her uncertainty and land her a place on the world stage and a new confidence in herself that allows her to feel she belongs there.
Queen of Katwe in particular seemed to resonate with Black Yale students because it dealt so heavily with Phiona’s pervasive sense of emotional homelessness. A common phenomenon among students of color in general is feeling out of place at Yale as a predominantly white institution (PWI) and feeling out of place at home as a student at a PWI. When Coach Robert addressed this with Phiona, the simultaneous intake of breath of the audience was audible. It was exactly what we’d needed to hear.
The power of this story for Black and African kids is indescribable—children see a high-achieving role model that look like them without struggling to identify their own experience with a white person’s, or even a fictional character’s. As heroes of power and determination go, there isn’t much farther to go than Phiona Mutesi, who once said in an ESPN documentary about herself, “My chess goal is to be a grandmaster. My life goal is to be a doctor.”