There are a lot of reasons to see this movie. First and foremost, there is the amazing story of a young Ugandan girl in the most meager of circumstances who learns chess and becomes an International Master.
More significantly, the film portrays life in her shockingly poor village. The houses, if you can even call them that, are made of plywood with only cloth covering doors and windows. The floors are cement or dirt with no plumbing or furniture. Everyone sleeps next to each on the floor, with only their bodies for heat.
Despite the poverty, there is beauty in this village. The women all wear bright, intricately patterned material that they wrap around themselves in a way that fashion designers can only imitate. There is the vigor and camaraderie of the marketplace.
But you never escape how poor and overlooked the villagers are. In contrast, wealth and comfort are not far away, and Phiona and her other young chess players see that when they are invited for a match at a private school in a nearby city. You feel their astonishment that a place like this even exists as they approach the school in their rattletrap van.
The cinematography is precise with a documentary feel that brings you close to just how difficult the lives of Phiona and her family are. All the young kids in the movie shine, but it is the performances by the three main actors that propel this film. Because of her lack of experience Madina Katwanga in her very first role plays Phiona with total authenticity. David Oyelowo, acclaimed for his portrayal of Martin Luther King, Jr. in Selma, gives Phiona’s chess teacher and champion verve and sensitivity.
But it is Lupita Nyong’o, Oscar winner for Twelve Years a Slave, as Phiona’s mother, Nakku, who gives the strongest performance. She convincingly conveys the pain and confusion of a mother resigned to her inescapably impoverished life. Because of Phiona’s genius for a game Nakku sees as merely gambling, she sees her daughter gradually being taken away from her. Taking you expertly from frustration and despair to astonishment and pride, Nyong’o gives an award-winning role.
Along with the many positives about Queen of Fatwe, there are some negatives as well. The plot is very predictable. Genius is discovered. Initial success is followed by setbacks. Finally, comes the fulfillment of her dream. Like most films today, at just over two hours, the Queen of Fatwe is 20-30 minutes too long. And the filmmakers do the best they can with making the chess matches exciting, but that’s too much to ask of anyone.
Looking back, I like Queen of Fatwe more than when I was watching it. While appreciating the filming, acting and inspiring story, I found myself drifting, waiting for the expected outcome. It was more an intellectual, rather than an emotional, appreciation - I wanted it to grab me more. But it is well worth seeing. You may feel that vital connection more than I did.