[This post is dedicated to the memory of Nikita Pearl Waligwa who played adorable little Gloria in “Queen Of Katwe”. Nikita sadly passed away from a brain tumor, two days ago on February 15 at the young age of 15. Our prayers go out to her family. Rest In Peace, Nikita…]
Warning: The following commentary and review contains spoilers from both the movie and the book. If you haven’t read my piece on why you should see it, you can do so by clicking here. If you haven’t seen the movie, I also suggest you do so before proceeding.
I mentioned before that this movie tugged at my heartstrings, more often than I’d anticipated. I’m sure after reading this that you will agree with the scenes that had the greatest impact (to me). Before I begin, understand that “Queen Of Katwe” was brought to my attention while watching an episode of “Inside The Actor’s Studio” during an interview by actress Uzo Aduba (“Crazy Eyes” from Orange Is The New Black) with Academy Award winner Lupita Nyong’o (Patsey from “12 Years A Slave”). While reviewing her body of work, they showed the following scene, where the family was evicted from their home by a heartless landlord with little tolerance for deliquent payments: This takes place after her son Brian was struck by a “Boda Boda” (motorbike used for common transportation through the city’s congested traffic) and rushed to the hospital. Her character had just secretly removed her son Brian from the hospital (with no pain-killers in his system) to avoid paying a bill they couldn’t afford after his accident. The family returned home to find the entry to their home padlocked from entry.
Of course the subsequent moments were truly heartbreaking: Phiona, Brian, Harriet and Richard (in arms), struggling down the road in the middle of the night. I was extremely painful to watch; the family trudging along the road, supporting a wounded Brian, enduring incredible pain from his accident, collectively exhausted and desperately needing rest and sleep… I don’t have the words to describe how much it hurt my heart and how enraged I was, thinking back on their landlord’s apathetic attitude and actions.
Then there’s older sister, Night and little Richard (who’d already stolen my heart in an earlier scene where his younger version softly stated, “They are leaving me” as Phiona and brother Brian left home for tournament in Budo). It’s bad enough that Night made it clear that she was unhappy (and ashamed, having to move back home after her lover, Theo, “got tired of her” as their mother put it). But for Night to leave him unattended (going out with Theo again), in a hammock as the rains came, with nothing but a half-ear of corn to eat… wow.
My personal issues and disgust with child-neglect only served to infuriate me further. My frustration was soon replicated by sadness yet again as he lay shivering and whimpering, unprotected from the cold and intensifying downpour (I swear, if ever there was a time I wanted to fly out and claim custody of a child, this scene was it).
I have to admit, ripping this scene from the DVD had me near tears, listening to his little voice as the rain showered down on him as he ate.
Then I covered my mouth in horror as the dam broke and the floodwaters invaded their home as he clung desperately to the hammock, hoping to withstand the pressure of the water current. In a millisecond, I just knew that I was going to witness his tragic death once he lost his grip and/or was covered in water, ultimately drowning. I wanted so badly to grab the remote and pause or fast-forward the scene so as to not watch his fate.
When the scene cut to his mother and Phiona walking towards the house in the flood, I was convinced he was dead.
Thankfully, they got to him in time, but it was too late to stop my tears.
Although he was soon rescued by his mother and sister, my suspicions were confirmed. I read in the book that many teen mothers often go into town to “offer themselves” for companionship in order to make money to pay for food and rent. And that it’s not uncommon for them to return home to drowned infants that had been left alone in their hammocks as the floodwaters entered or that their homes had burned down due to overturned lamps during their absence.
There was a moment that was all too familiar to me, which occurred during the first major competition outside of Katwe: The introductory exchange between Phiona and her first opponent, a student from a privileged background who reluctantly shook her hand. After making physical contact, he quickly wiped his hands on the tablecloth, in her view, displaying his so-called superiority and personal insult of having to endure competing against someone of her nature.
What’s disturbing is that people of his stature have little desire to know someone like Phiona; what she has endured since childhood.
This is why, for the viewer, you can’t help help but celebrate with Phiona and her mother as the village honors her after her climactic victory at the Women’s Junior Chess Championship.
This is why we celebrate her becoming the pride of Katwe, of Kampala, of Uganda and throughout Africa as her story is shared globally.
I only wish I had known of her sooner. I would love to have seen and possibly met her when she came to compete at the Pan American Intercollegiate Team Chess Championship, here in Columbus, Ohio back in 2017.
As is the case with all movie adaptations, much is omitted that you would find in the novel.
- For instance, her mother had to wake daily at 2 a.m. and walk 3 miles to buy vegetables, including eggplants and avocados. After returning home, giving them to Phiona to resell at the street market, eventually including her siblings.
- Phiona had to wake up at 5 a.m. each morning and trek for two hours, just to fill a jug with potable water or her family.
- Most days consisted of searching for food (which was usually a meal of rice and tea).
- Phiona almost died at age 8. Initially, her mother Harriet thought she had malaria. At the hospital (her mother had to beg for money from her sister to take her) doctors removed fluid from Phiona’s spine after she lost consciousness. Thankfully, she regained consciousness two days later.
- There is a very detailed breakdown about the decline of Uganda’s economy as a result of the dictatorship of Idi Amin.
- Life in Katwe was much more difficult for its inhabitants than is portrayed in the movie. Here is a passage from the book: “There is no sewage or sanitation, the stench is appalling. Garbage litters the slums and flies are everywhere. There is an absence of law. Drug use, prostitution, robbery and murder are prevalent, making Katwe one of the worst crime-ridden areas in the capital city of Kampala, Uganda. 50 percent of teen girls are mothers.” One particularly depressing statement stuck with me: “…those living outside of the area prefer that people from Katwe, STAY in Katwe”.
- One important section is the story of Robert Katende, his family history and background and his halted career as an athlete due to his life-threatening injury in a football (soccer) game. Raised by his grandmother, the only thing you learn about his mother is from a flashback of meeting her and then losing her not long after to breast cancer. His story is equally compelling, but was omitted so as to not take focus away from Phiona’s character and her story. Fortunately, the following segment (“A Fork A Spoon and A Knight) provides information for those that didn’t have the good fortune of reading about him and his extraordinary work.
Phiona Mutesi’s tale is truly a tale of inspiration. It is a lesson and a message to those that don’t understand life outside of the comforts of their own environment and home. That being “better off” in your situation does not make you a “better person”. It is a reminder that you are not bound by your surroundings. You are not a product of your environment. You are not limited to your dreams.
…and after all is said and done, there is NOTHING more important than family.