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Chess Rules in Film 'Queen of Katwe'

Madina Nalwanga (left) and Lupita Nyong’o in the new film 'Queen of Katwe.'

Madina Nalwanga (left) and Lupita Nyong’o in the new film 'Queen of Katwe.'

Many films about Africa tell about violence and war. But the new movie "Queen of Katwe" tells a story about a chess expert.

The heroine is a young girl from a slum in Uganda who works in a food market. Then she learns to play chess.

The film is based on a true story.

Robert Katende is the girl’s teacher. He is played by actor David Oyelowo. Katende has seen the girl looking into the room where other children are playing chess and eating free food.

Phiona Mutesi is played by actress Madina Nalwanga.

“What is your name?”


Katende talks to a young girl in the room.

“Can you please show Phiona how to move the pieces?”

Learning how to play chess changes Phiona’s life. She learns the game at a place that helps the poor children of Kampala, Uganda. Katende tells her to have big dreams.

“What is preventing you from being a grand master?”

“I do not know about being a grand master.”

“Sometimes the place you are used to, it is not the place you belong. You belong where you believe you belong. Where is that for you, Phiona?”

The girl learns that Katende grew up in the same slums where she now lives. He studied engineering at a university.

Oyelowo told VOA the film uses the story of a poor girl to tell about Africa and the African people.

“Often when we see films coming out of Africa, it’s child soldiers, it’s dictators, it’s poverty, it’s disease. But we very rarely get to see these positive images, we very rarely get to see the self-possession of the people, and the fact that they can take care of themselves from within, they don’t need help necessarily from without.”

In the film, Katende tries to convince Phiona’s mother to let her and her brother travel to a private school for a chess competition.

Phiona’s mother Harriet is played by Academy Award-winning actress Lupita Nyong’o.

“This is a chance for them to visit the finest school in the country.”

“Well, how can I pay school fees?”

Harriet’s husband has died and she must work hard to survive. Nyong’o says Harriet is very protective of her children.

“…she has to learn that in order to really love her daughter, she has to learn to let her go and risk failure, and that's how Phiona ends up being the champion that she becomes.”

The real Phiona Mutesi defends her mother.

“I don’t blame her for what she was doing because of where we were living. She had to protect me because there is a lot of raping, kind of things, so she couldn’t allow me to go out from house. But then after some time she allowed me to go out and start practicing. Right now, she is so happy with whatever is going on, she is excited.”

Today, Phiona Mutesi is a chess grand master and has taken part in two international chess competitions.

I’m Caty Weaver.

VOA Entertainment Correspondent Penelope Poulou reported this story from Washington. Christopher Jones-Cruise adapted it into VOA Special English. Kelly Jean Kelly was the editor.

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Words in This Story

chess - n. a game for two players in which each player moves 16 pieces across a board and tries to place the opponent's king in a position from which it cannot escape​

heroine - n. the chief female character in a story, play, movie, etc.​

slum - n. an area of a city where poor people live and the buildings are in bad condition​

grand master - n. an expert player in chess who has scored very high in international competition

positive - adj. good or useful​

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