09/29/2016 04:13 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Queen of Katwe: The Rags-to-Riches Story of Phiona Mutesi

The game of chess. It doesn't really interest me.

Most likely, Uganda will only be a place I might visit through headlines.

These were the thoughts that bounced in my mind as I accepted a press junket with Disney announcing we would be screening Disney's Queen of Katwe.

By the title, I guessed it was about a girl from the slums of Uganda who learned to play chess.

One afternoon, on a three-day junket, 24 bloggers and myself, took a seat in the Frank G. Wells theater. The lights dimmed and the movie started.


On the screen I met Phiona. I learned of multigenerational poverty.

I came to know her mother. A single, widowed woman who sent her children into the core of the village to sell corn. It's their livelihood and yet it seems to fall so short of even the worst standards I could imagine.

Phiona isn't an only child. Her mother, Harriet (Lupita Nyong'o), is tasked with keeping four children alive.

Night (Taryn Kyaze), Phiona's older sister, rides off on a motorcycle dressed more like a "Lady of the Night" than anyone prim and proper.


There are also two younger brothers.

The five of them, living in what must be the worst slum in the world. Katwe. A place where there is no value for human life. A place where the female is less than a human being.

From Phiona's beginning, failure seemed her only option. Harriet was a teen mother with older children and many responsibilities. Phiona's father, though not mentioned but perhaps briefly, died of AIDS and had another family to support.

Harriet is trying to keep them alive, fed and sheltered. It's a never-ending responsibility living in Katwe where thousands of children die from starvation and disease.

As the story introduced me more and more to Katwe, I had the realization that Phiona was not a Disney princess of the traditional sorts.

We see Phiona as a regular girl, under adverse circumstances.


In this image released by Disney, Lupita Nyong'o, right, and Madina Nalwanga appear in a scene from "Queen of Katwe." (Edward Echwalu/Disney via AP)

Her world changes when she follows her brother, perhaps hoping for food to soothe her growling stomach. She spies on him through the dusty shacks planks of an abandoned church. She watches as boys play chess, a game she had never heard of or seen.

The adult teaching the boys, Robert Katende (David Oyelowo) sees Phiona. He invites her in and offers her a bowl of porridge.

Robert is a soccer player, whose dreams on the soccer field ended with an injury. He turned to missionary work and set up the Pioneer Chess Club for the youth of Katwe.

A girl younger than Phiona, is tasked with teaching Phiona the names of the chess pieces and how they move.

Robert tells Phiona, "This place is for fighters."


Within just a few games, Robert realizes Phiona is a natural. She can predict a her player's next move.

Day after day, Phiona and her brother show up at the abandoned building, eat a bowl of porridge and play the game of chess.

Harriet learns of this and confronts Robert. There will be no false promises, corrupting her children. It's here that I thought of my own challenges as a mother. I thought of my friend, Rachel, next to me. In that moment of watching Harriet as an unflinching woman with a brash attitude masking the pressures she was facing trying to simply exist and standing firmly for her own beliefs for her children, a tear trickled down my cheek. She had lost all hope, compromised to just get through the moment, and yet stood proud with morals.

One of my favorite scenes in Queen of Katwe is when Harriet dresses in a dress passed down to her by her mother. It is Harriet's most precious possession. She wears it only one time before in the movie, at a hospital after her son's accident to give the appearance she can afford his medical treatment. She is looking to sell the dress to a man, who seemingly has had eyes on her for a long time.

He offers her very little for the dress and Harriet counters with a larger number. It's here we see Harriet as something more than a mother, she flirts and seems to set the responsibilities aside.

He agrees to pay her request, provided she join him for an evening. There is no hesitation. There is no mulling it over.

She tells him that the lesser amount will be fine.

Robert understands her. He loves what he does, yet he wants more for his wife and child. He feels the need to abandon his missionary work and pursue an engineering career. He is warm. He is humorous. He is determined. He sees Phiona as a prodigy and questions his own skill and ability to elevate her to what he knows awaits her.

As Queen of Katwe ended, my first thought was how perfect the title is for this movie. That both the chess piece and the girl defy the odds with such grace.

That while I have no interest in Chess, or Uganda, I sat in the theater not to learn something, not to be entertained, but to meet an extraordinary person, Phiona. I cannot tell you how many times I have thought of her since seeing Queen of Katwe that day. She comes to my mind often.

My perspective changed. I have a greater understanding on the importance of never giving up.

Queen of Katwe. Maybe it is about a game of chess and a girl who survived the slums. Maybe it is a story of courage, hope, faith, rising above unimaginable circumstances, daring to dream big and, in the end, realizing you have succeeded. You have defied the odds.

Phiona proves it can be done.

Meet Phiona and Witness her transformation from the slums of Uganda to the Queen of Katwe in Theaters Everywhere.

Queen of Katwe is unlike any other Disney movie. It's filled with authentic culture, a story not widely known and a woman who changed her world.

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©2016 Julee Morrison, as first published on Mommy's Memorandum