Queen of Katwe

There's a fascinating subset of inspirational sports and competition films coming out of Walt Disney Studios that successfully blend cultural issues with offbeat sporting events, from the cross-country running of McFarland, USA to the baseball-by-way-of-cricket stylings of Million Dollar Arm. These films use unconventional games to pull back the curtain on contemporary life lessons facing citizens of various cultures, and the outstanding practice continues this month when Disney releases Mira Nair's chess drama, Queen of Katwe.

Based on an actual story, Queen of Katwe follows African teenager Phiona Mutesi as she picks up the game of chess and uses her innate ability to dominate in the game to lift her out of a difficult home life in Uganda. Mira Nair filmed Katwe on location in Uganda, capturing the vibrancy of the native African culture, and tapped Hollywood A-listers David Oyelowo and Lupita Nyong'o to help her tell this uplifting tale. But because the movie swirls around young people taking a chance on the game of chess, I asked the cast what advice they would give any young children coming out of a Queen of Katwe screening and wanting to investigate further the intricacies of the timeless game. Oyelowo told me:

I would say do it, because it is a fantastic metaphor for life. It teaches you a lot of life lessons. It teaches you patience. It teaches you foresight. And in order to get better, you have to work at it, so I think those are all things to apply to a young person's mind.

David Oyelowo also says that working on Queen of Katwe did indeed inspire him to sharpen his own skills at the game of chess himself, but that unlike Phiona, he never was able to predict a game eight moves ahead of an opponent. He tells me, with a laugh:

[I got] about two or three. No more than that. And three at a push!

Thankfully, as part of the promotional push at the Toronto International Film Festival -- where the movie held its World Premiere -- Disney brought the real Phiona Mutesi and her chess coach, Robert Katende, to speak with select journalists, and I was able to ask them directly what advice they'd give to young players curious about taking up chess. First, Phiona told me:

Maybe I would like to tell them to have interest in the game. Not being forced [into playing]. And also to be patient when they are starting with the game. Because most people like their quick things. But it's not that. You have to be patient with everything that is coming up, for everything to connect.

Backing up his student's advice, Robert Katende told me:

In most cases, most children get demoralized because of losing their games. But when it comes to chess, it is a must. You have to lose games to become better. So, many of them get so desperate for getting a win, and when they don't, they get demoralized. In most cases, whenever you lose a game, that's a very big opportunity for you to learn more. What went wrong? What could you have done better? Because even in life, there are moments when you can find failures, but how you respond to it helps you to get up and move.

And that's not just in chess. That's in everything. Here's video of the Katwe cast giving advice to young ones.

Mira Nair's Queen of Katwe opens in limited release on September 23, before going wider on September 30.

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