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QUEEN OF KATWE: 3 STARS. “finds inspiration in a place where there is little hope.”

screen-shot-2016-09-19-at-12-53-43-pmMost of “Queen of Katwe,” director Mira Nair’s true story of chess prodigy Phiona Mutesi, is set in Kampala, Uganda but despite a very specific location, the film is ripe with universal messages.

Based on the book “The Queen of Katwe: A Story of Life, Chess, and One Extraordinary Girl’s Dream of Becoming a Grandmaster” the story picks up steam when Phiona (Madina Nalwanga), an illiterate girl from a very poor family, meets Robert Katende (David Oyelowo), at a Sports Ministry Out Reach. The young teacher sees something special in Phiona and her uncanny ability with chess. Soon she is beating the other children at the outreach. “What I’m seeing cannot be true!” says one young boy amazed he’s being beaten by a girl. Another more experienced player accuses her of reading his mind. Katende soon figures out that she is able to see eight moves ahead, annihilating almost everyone who sits opposite her.

Soon, against the wishes of her mother Harriet (Lupita Nyong’o), who, at first, doesn’t see a future in playing a game when the family desperately needs her to work in the market to put food on the table. From local tournaments to World Chess Olympiads, Phiona’s skill becomes her family’s ticket to a better life. “Sometimes the place you’re used to,” Katende tells her, “is not the place you belong.”

“Queen of Katwe” is a story that finds inspiration in a place where there is little hope. Nair vibrantly bring life in Kampala to life. Grinding poverty is on display but so is the indomitable spirit that allows people to survive in diminished living circumstances. “Challenges are not a curse,” the Outreach slogan, is glimpsed only briefly but is the overriding theme of this message-laden movie.

Chess is used as a metaphor throughout. “In chess the small one [the pawn] can become the big one [the queen] that’s why I like it,” says one of Phiona’s early teachers. “Do not be quick to tip your king,” says Katende. In other words never give up. These are about as subtle as a shovel to the forehead but while the film’s messages are syrupy sweet the universal truths are solid. It’s not just about winning or losing in Phiona’s world, it’s about representing her country and bettering her family’s life. These are potent ideas even if they are a little saccharine.

Aided by an appealing cast—although the accents might be a challenge from time to tome—Nair rings every ounce of emotion from the inspirational story.

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