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‘Queen of Katwe’ shows how to beat the odds and excel

“Queen of Katwe” (2016). Cast: Madina Nalwanga, David Oyelowo, Lupita Nyong’o, Martin Kabanza, Taryn “Kay” Kyaze, Ivan Jacobo, Nicolas Levesque, Ronald Ssemaganda, Ethan Nazario Lubega, Nikita Waliga, Esther Tebandeke, Philip Luswata, Maurice Kirya, Peter Odeke. Director: Mira Nair. Screenplay: William Wheeler. Book: Tim Crothers, The Queen of Katwe: A Story of Life, Chess, and One Extraordinary Girl’s Dream of Becoming a Grandmaster. Web site. Trailer.

What does it take to beat the odds and rise above our challenges? That can be a rather tall order, especially when things seem stacked against us. But, when we put our mind to it, it’s possible to achieve almost anything. One need only look at the inspiring example set by a determined young woman from the Ugandan slums and her dreams to achieve greatness, a fact-based story told in the heartwarming new biopic, “Queen of Katwe.”

Teenager Phiona Mutesi (Madina Nalwanga) leads a life of few prospects in the ghettoes of Katwe, Uganda. As one of four children being raised by a widowed mother (Lupita Nyong’o), Phiona spends her days selling maize in hopes of raising enough money to keep the family afloat, a seemingly perpetual struggle. In fact, things are so tight financially that Phiona’s mother can’t afford to send her children to school, leaving them without such basic skills as the ability to read.

But, almost as if by chance, Phiona makes an interesting discovery one day. She stumbles upon a ministry-sponsored outreach program aimed at involving underprivileged children in something far removed from their typical everyday experience – the game of chess. The program is run by Robert Katende (David Oyelowo), an unemployed engineer who took the job to help support his family while trying to land a position in his field. He might not seem like the obvious choice for a position such as this, but he’s actually an ideal candidate, given his proficiency for the game and his remarkable ability to instruct others in how to play it. What he doesn’t realize, however, is that he’s about to meet his star pupil, someone who will change his life, as well as her own.

Phiona proves to be a natural at chess, able to predict how a match will unfold eight moves ahead. Needless to say, Robert is astounded by her ability, not only for how quickly she picks up the game, but also for what a sound strategist she is. But, then, as Robert routinely imparts to his students, such foresight is essential to success at the game – and at life. And, as someone who regularly must rely on her wits just to get by, Phiona is as a model of this principle.

Given Phiona’s astounding ability, Robert seeks to enter her in tournaments, something that the organizers of these meets don’t take seriously. How can an illiterate girl from the slums possibly understand, let alone successfully compete, in contests involving such a noble and intellectual game? But that’s where Phiona defies the odds – and the skeptics – especially when she shows her competitors what she can do.

Considering Phiona’s background and circumstances, incredulous onlookers quite naturally ask, “How does she do it?” She comes across as so reserved and unassuming that many might wonder how she can be such a tiger on the chess board. But, for those who practice conscious creation, the means by which we manifest the reality we experience through the power of our thoughts, beliefs and intents, the answer is simple – because she believes she can.

Quite simply, Phiona refuses to buy into the idea that she can’t do what she does. Despite her daily challenges, she’s undeterred when it comes to playing the game she so loves. Her focus is so intent and the beliefs related to her self-confidence are so strong that “extraneous” conditions don’t impinge upon her ability to control the pieces on the chess board. Such belief clarity and personal integrity allow her to work her magic on the field of play, no matter what else may be going on in her life.

Several types of beliefs factor significantly into the mix she employs as a master of the game. Given the virtually limitless number of moves available on a chess board, there are numerous lines of probability open to players in seeking suitable paths to victory. Being aware of these options, and of the ways to circumvent threats from opponents, enables proficient competitors to assess, explore and employ a variety of successful strategies, much as Phiona does. Her firm belief in this capability helps solidify her skills, which, in turn, make themselves apparent during the course of play – and in the results of her matches.

The ability to envision outcomes, another belief-based skill, also plays a significant role. The more we’re able to picture a particular result, the more likely we’re to ultimately see it realized. Such a skill can prove particularly valuable in endeavors involving complex strategies, like playing chess, so anyone who possesses it has a distinct advantage. Of course, this depends on developing and implementing manifestation beliefs that support such a capability, but it is possible, as Phiona’s experience demonstrates. This is evidenced, as noted earlier, by Robert’s astonishment at Phiona’s ability to picture the course of play so far in advance of its unfolding, a revelation that becomes apparent during a game he plays with her, a prime example of the student surpassing even the mentor.

One of the keys to making the foregoing work is a belief in no limits, another quality Phiona possesses. Trying the untried frequently meets with surprising success, and it can be especially useful in a game like chess, where employing the unexpected frequently stuns one’s opponent. However, to be able to employ such unconventional strategies, we must believe in the possibility of their existence and their ability to be successfully implemented. This means overcoming any tendencies we might have toward belief tunnel vision, as well as having the courage to forge ahead with these seemingly unorthodox initiatives. Again, Phiona rises to the occasion, developing the beliefs to enliven such possibilities and to apply them to the field of play.

When we consider the lessons that chess can teach us, it becomes apparent that they’re applicable to more than just this storied board game. The abilities to explore probabilities, envision outcomes, surpass limits and develop effective strategies are all crucial to the game of life as well, and the more we’re able to transfer these fundamental skills into arenas other than competition, the more we’re likely to create lives full of satisfaction and fulfillment. And to think it’s all possible just by learning how to move some pieces around a game board.

Chess may not seem like a particularly compelling subject for cinematic treatment, yet it’s tapped surprisingly often, perhaps because of its ability to effectively portray the foregoing principles. In addition to “Queen of Katwe,” chess has provided the backdrop for a number of other pictures, including “Searching for Bobby Fischer” (1993), “Pawn Sacrifice” (2015) and “The Dark Horse” (2016). Given that, it would seem that there’s an unusually rich vein of material to be mined from this subject, one that those who would readily dismiss it might want to look at more closely.

For its part, “Queen of Katwe” aptly illustrates the aforementioned principles. It also shows what we can accomplish when we apply ourselves and don’t give in to ill-considered criticism. This can mean a lot to those who lack hope and have doubts about their future. But, with the right mindset and a little support and encouragement from the right backers – those who can genuinely see what someone is capable of – the results can easily come to speak for themselves, as Phiona so eloquently demonstrates.

“Queen of Katwe” is a thoroughly heartening and inspirational offering, perfect for impressionable young minds. The writing is occasionally heavy-handed, wooden and formulaic, coming across as a little too ennobling and schmaltzy for its own good. However, the film’s fine performances, especially Nyong’o and newcomer Nalwanga, resonate warmly with viewers, though the platitude-laden script and sometimes-inconsistent pacing periodically hamper the efforts of the protagonists. This isn’t groundbreaking cinema, but it’s certainly an entertaining feel-good movie that’s well worth a look.

Seeking and fulfilling our destiny may take us down some unexpected paths, including those that we might have once never considered pursuing. However, the meaningful outcomes of such efforts can prove rewarding beyond measure, both to those who travel them and to those who encourage us to traverse them. Phiona and Robert show us the way – and find their own in the process.

Copyright © 2016, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.

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