This 2017 movie is based on a book by Tim Croniers, which is based on a true story. I’m not sure if the distributors are slow at bringing in the film or if this would not be shown here because of some religious overtones. Anyway, it is not the first time I find such gems at the library@esplanade.
The film opens with the 2011 Chess Championships in Uganda before the credits come on, then it flashes back to 2004 and shows scenes of the street vendors and villagers at the marketplace, speaking the Ugandan language.
A girl, Phiona Mutesi (Madina Nalwanga) is not allowed to join her brothers and other boys in playing football but is soon introduced to chess. At first, she is badly teased for smelling like a pig. But Phiona is stubborn and is determined to learn to play the game well. She washes up becomes and quickly becomes one of the best. (Here, there are more scenes of the colourful village.)
In chess, the small one can become the big one. It is where you get to use your mind and follow your plans. When Phiona starts winning, the boy who had always been the best, exclaims: What I’m seeing can’t be true!
Meanwhile, Phiona’s mother, Nakku Harriet (Lupita Nyong’o) has misgivings about her daughter playing chess, and it takes a lot of convincing from the coach, Robert Katende (David Oyelowo): Chess is not gambling; It takes discipline and mental skills, determination and intelligence; It is a game of strategy that strengthens our minds.
Eventually, Harriet allows Phiona to go to the “rich man’s city” to play in the National Schools Chess Championships. Phiona gives up half way through the game when she thinks she is trailing. Katende reminds her ‘not to be too quick to tip your king‘ and that she must never surrender.
The following year, she enters the National Junior Chess Championships and wins. Coach Katende realises that Phiona can see eight moves ahead and thinks that maybe she can enter the international championship one day.
When she participates in the International Chess Tournament in Sudan (her first flight and she sees amazing sight of the clouds), she learns that one can be a Master (and win money – very useful for someone living in poverty) if one wins at least 50% of the games in a FIDE approved tournament, like the Olympiad in Russia.
Of course Phiona wins the championship and life changes for her. Now that she has tasted something different, she cannot rest nor go back to her previous life. Since she has the talent of a prodigy, she will make use of this gift. She wants to buy a house for her mother and family to live in.
At 14 years old, Phiona leads a team to Russia, playing a Canadian in the Finals. She does not win; but her coach reminds her that losing does not mean she is a failure. It just takes time. Things are changing, and she is the youngest player ever to take chess to the Olympiad. She eventually wins and the entire village gives her a rousing welcome.
Two years later, a book is written about Phiona, by the same author who wrote about her feat in a magazine feature. (She gets paid for this too.) She buys a beautiful home for her mother. The expression of surprise and joy on Harriet is priceless!
Besides the wonderful visual effects, especially seen in the village of Katwe, there is a lot of traditional African music (among 30 songs, some of which are pop and rap), involving the use of African flutes, Indian wind instruments, real Uganda musicians, female vocals and rapping in the Ugandan language.