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Mayim’s awesome family movie night: ‘The Queen of Katwe’

Reflections on family movie night
By Mayim Bialik     Published on 12/28/2017 at 9:00 AM EDT

My sons and I had a family movie night recently, which was so uncharacteristically spectacular that it is worth writing about.

You see, we don’t watch TV in my house, and we don’t see a lot of movies. So when we do, there is a lot of drama.

FirstBorn is 12, and likes action and adventure, but he is really into comedy lately. So he wants comedy. Little Man thinks he is a ninja so he wants anything action. Or really silly stuff that usually features talking guinea pigs, or something I don’t think is at all worth watching.

Maybe once a month, I pick the movie we watch, and this time I picked Disney’s The Queen of Katwe. It’s a true story about a young girl whose life is transformed when she serendipitously learns to play chess. Lupita Nyong’o plays the mother of the main character and she is wonderful, as is David Oyelowo as the coach and mentor for the main character (he played the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in “Selma”). The other actors are mainly Ugandan actors, and the main character of Phiona is played by Madina Nalwanga, a talented Ugandan teenager who had never formally acted before this film.

My older son was happy we were watching it because “I like chess and we were supposed to watch it when it came out in theater but we didn’t.” (Never underestimate the ability of your kid to remind you when you disappointed them!) My Little Man griped as I selected it and pulled it up on my laptop because “It didnt look interesting because I normally like action movies.” I took a deep breath and forged ahead. It became clear very quickly that we were going to love this movie. Most times we watch movies on the couch, but this time, we watched all cuddled up in bed together with my laptop propped up on some pillows on my outstretched legs.

Full disclosure: on paper, The Queen of Katwe had some strikes against it.

  1. It’s about chess. We like chess in our family, but a movie about it sounded weird to my boys.
  2. It’s long. Family movies are usually around 90 minutes. This one stretched an entire 2 hours and change.
  3. It’s about a part of the world my kids know nothing about. Katwe is an impoverished city in Uganda. My kids know very little about African countries and even less about poverty. We had a lot to learn.

Why did this turn out to be such an excellent movie for us?

Chess is a game of skill and maneuvering. This movie features an impoverished girl who discovers the game of chess and has an instant knack for it. Like, it’s in her brain even though she has no training. She gets it. It clicks. And chess itself is a game where a tiny pawn can reach the status of Queen.

TEACHING MOMENT: Everyone has skills and intelligence. The environment we are raised in has a lot to do with what is brought out in you. If Fiona had never met this chess coach, she may have spent her whole life not knowing that she had this incredible gift. Intellect and talent and creativity and beauty are possible in people of any background: rich, poor, black, white, city or country. In addition, every person has the right to opportunities to rise up and be more.

The film was shot in Uganda and the footage is so raw and intimate. You see the marketplace, the system by which children work selling salt and grain and bottling sewer water and delivering it all day every day to earn wages. You see children caring for siblings, and the cruelty of poverty is depicted in ways that are salient but not too disturbing for young eyes.

TEACHING MOMENT: The world is so very big. There are people without clean water, without rights, and without hope all over the world. Children everywhere love to play, to learn and to be loved and cared for. Mothers in many parts of the world care for many children alone. Many children can not afford to go to school. It is a privilege to be able to read. I say these things all of the time, but this film made it all very real.

The Queen of Katwe ends joyfully with the actual people standing next to the actors who portrayed them. That was amazing to see. It is a redemptive movie and a funny movie. It is a powerful movie and a passionate movie.

TEACHING MOMENT: Life is hard; harder for some more than for others. But ultimately, what sustains humans is relationships. We have to treat one another well. We have to support each other. We have to believe that there is goodness and we have to be the goodness if it is not there.

My boys and I strongly recommend The Queen of Katwe for any family interested in any of the following: chess, Africa, teachers and students, compassion, hope, faith, and humanity.

FirstBorn says: “I liked this movie because it was well made. It had a good story, the acting was very nice, and a lot of the kids in the movie had not acted before but they were really good.”

Little Man says: “I liked it because it was artistic – the shots were pretty – and all of the actors and actresses were good.”

We recommend this movie to anyone with an open mind, an open heart, and a couch or bed suitable for cuddling.

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