A cinematic checkmate

Forget Disney’s princesses; the Disney heroine you want to see is a queen — of the chess board.

John I. Carney
4 min readMay 11, 2022

Madina Nalwanga as Phiona Mutesi in “Queen of Katwe” (Walt Disney Pictures)

In the fall of 2020, with many Americans cooped up during the global pandemic, the Netflix series “The Queen’s Gambit” got a lot of attention, and brought a renewed attention to the game of chess. But at the time, there was a quite different chess-themed entertainment that I kept meaning to watch but never got around to.

I have been planning a trip to Uganda with Raise The Roof Academy for several years. I originally signed up in fall 2019 for a trip in the summer of 2020. That trip, for obvious reasons, got postponed, and now it’s scheduled for late June and early July of this year.

I’ve been on a number of short-term mission trips, including five trips to Kenya, but I’ve never been to Uganda. When RTRA first sent us trip preparation materials for that 2020 trip, they strongly recommended a 2016 Disney film called “Queen Of Katwe” because of its vivid and accurate portrayal of life in a Ugandan slum. I had every intention of watching the movie, and even purchased it from Amazon Prime Video at one point, but did not get around to actually watching it before the 2020 postponement.

A couple of weeks ago, I finally watched it — for free, on Disney+, in spite of my Amazon purchase. Now, I’m kicking myself for not having made time earlier. This movie is a delight. Of course, some of the sights and sounds of Uganda bring to mind similar things I saw and heard on my Kenya trips. But I think this movie can be enjoyed by anyone, from any background, and it’s perfect for watching with elementary school kids or older.

The movie is the true story of Phiona Mutesi (played by Madina Nalwanga), a young girl (initially 10) growing up in unspeakable poverty in Katwe, a slum area of Uganda’s capital, Kampala. It reminded me of the Kibera slums outside Nairobi, where we worked on several of my Kenya trips. There’s no way that Phiona’s single mother (played by Lupita Nyong’o) could afford to send her children to school, so Phiona and her younger brother help the mother sell produce in the local open-air market. There’s also an older sister who attempts to make her own way in the world.

John I. Carney

Author of “Dislike: Faith and Dialogue in the Age of Social Media,” available at http://www.lakeneuron.com/dislike