Christian Characters Add Inspiration to Chess Drama Queen of Katwe
- Christian Hamaker Contributing Film and Culture Writer
- 2016 22 Sep
What could have been a by-the-numbers story of an unlikely hero triumphing over the odds receives added inspiration from faith-fueled characters. 4 out of 5.
Phiona (Madina Nalwanga) and her siblings are raised in Uganda by a single mother (Lupita N’yongo) who struggles to care for them. As a new employee with the local sports ministry, Robert (David Oyelowo) sees in Phiona the seeds of a skilled chess player. His biggest challenge is convincing Phiona’s mother to let him develop her into the champion he knows she can be. Through a series of competitive challenges—and personal setbacks—Phiona becomes a hero to her countrymen and an inspiration to anyone facing great odds in their life.
It’s hard to come up with recent mainstream films that have such positive Christian characters as Robert and his wife. The film doesn’t apologize for their faith, nor does it shy away from showing them in prayer, or wrestling with vocational decisions.
Much to its credit, this story of Africans features no "white savior" through whose eyes we see the black characters. And while the poverty in Phiona's community is evident, Director Mira Nair (Monsoon Wedding) knows how to imbue her stories with rich color, in this case thanks to the vibrant cinematography from Sean Bobbit (12 Years a Slave).
Rather than a traditional structure where the protagonist overcomes adversity and triumphs at a climactic match, Queen of Katwe takes us year by year through Phiona's development as a chess player, including several key matches. While departing from the typical story arc might have been well intended, the up-and-down cycles begin to feel repetitive. Digressions for other story strands extend the run time, where a tighter plot would have been even more effective.
Christian Worldview Elements / Spiritual Themes
Robert accepts a role in a sports ministry while trying to land a full-time engineering job, and is told when applying for the engineering job that men with integrity—like Robert—are rare. He’ll eventually have to confront whether his true calling is for the better paying engineering job or with the kids to whom he’s ministering. Phiona’s family also has faith, praying before meals, but also asking tough questions. Phiona wonders if God has forgotten them, and her older sister, who lives a life of sin, says she doesn’t think God cares about them. Traveling in an airplane for the first time, Phiona looks out the window and asks, "Is this heaven?" But we also hear her mother and older sister fight, with vows to never forgive and retorts about not needing forgiveness. Prayers are said before mealtime, and the chess team prays before and during their match, collectively and, in some cases, individually.
CAUTIONS (may contain spoilers)
- MPAA Rating: PG for thematic elements, an accident scene and some suggestive material
- Language/Profanity: Lord’s name taken in vain.
- Sexuality/Nudity: A husband and wife kiss, and the wife slaps the husband playfully; an out of wedlock pregnancy.
- Violence/Frightening/Intense: Phiona fights back when classmates taunt her; a boy is struck by a motorbike, and he then gets stitches without the use of any pain killers.
Drugs/Alcohol: Smoking and drinking.
The Bottom Line
RECOMMENDED FOR: Anyone who enjoys positive Christian role models in their stories. This is a film that’s appropriate for most ages, and that doesn’t talk down to its audience. While chess is central to its story, viewers need not be familiar with the game, much less be chess experts, to enjoy the broader story and the chess-playing scenes.
NOT RECOMMENDED FOR: Younger children may grow restless by the two-hours-plus running time.
Queen of Katwe, directed by Mira Nair, opened in theaters September 23, 2016; available for home viewing January 31, 2017. It runs 124 minutes and stars Madina Nalwanga, David Oyelowo, Lupita Nyong’o, Martin Kabanza, Taryn Kyaze, Nicolas Levesque. Watch the trailer for Queen of Katwe here.
Christian Hamaker brings a background in both Religion (M.A., Reformed Theological Seminary) and Film/Popular Culture (B.A., Virginia Tech) to his reviews. He still has a collection of more than 100 laserdiscs, and for DVDs patronizes the local library. Streaming? What is this "streaming" of which you speak? He'll figure it out someday. Until then, his preferred viewing venue is a movie theater. Christian is happily married to Sarah, a parent coach and author of Hired@Home and Ending Sibling Rivalry.
Publication date: September 23, 2016