Queen Of Katwe is the film you must see with your mum, daughter, sister and friends.

Queen of Katwe
Thanks to our brand partner, Queen of Katwe

The name Phiona Mutesi might not be a publicly known one, or perhaps even sound vaguely familiar to most people, but that’s about to change.

Phiona is inspiring, empowering, determined, and a reminder that nothing is impossible; that adversity can always be overcome.

The now 20-year-old is the subject of Disney’s new film Queen of Katwe, the vibrant – and true –  story charting her journey from a young girl growing up on the streets of rural Uganda to becoming a world-class chess player after stumbling upon the game purely by chance.

Queen of Katwe chronicles the journey from a young girl to a world class chess player. Image: Disney.

But in her early days, Phiona was more the unlucky pawn than the play-master in control. By the age of three years old, she had already lost her father and just a few weeks after the funeral, her older sister Juliet joined him after complaining of a headache.

The family moved to the slums of Katwe, a crime-ridden region of Uganda’s capital city Kampala where her mother Harriet Naku (played by Lupita Nyong’o) worked hard to support the family by selling vegetables at the market, getting up at two am and trekking five kilometres every day to purchase the goods to resell. At six years old, Phiona dropped out of school when the family could no longer afford to send her, instead selling maize at the markets or looking after her siblings.

“It was very hard not to be in school. I was in the slums alone. I did not have hope,” she said in a documentary in 2010.

When she was nine, Phiona followed her brother Brian to church where she happened upon Robert Katende (depicted by David Oyelowo), the founder of a chess course run for Katwe children as part of a Sports Outreach program, teaching others her own age about the skills and lessons chess can teach them in life. She was “mesmerised”.


Seeing she was quick to pick up the thinking and calculation required to succeed in the game, Katende became a mentor to Phiona, encouraging her to play competitively.

Keen? Here is the official trailer (post continues after video):

Even then, the path wasn’t easy. Not wanting her daughter to be disappointed nor believing that playing chess could help support or feed the family, Harriet banned Phiona from returning to her classes, but was eventually persuaded to let her pursue her dream.

Two years after discovering Katende’s chess program, Phiona was Uganda’s junior champion. One year later, she was the national champion - while still illiterate thanks to the premature end of her schooling. In 2012 at just 16 years old, she became a Woman Candidate Master, making her one of the first titled female players in Ugandan chess history.

Her success didn’t solve all the problems or change her upbringing though, and Phiona struggled with the contradiction between her life on the streets and her achievements on the chess scene.


"Phiona struggled with the contradiction between her precarious life on the streets and her achievements on the chess scene." Image: Disney.

It was around this time that her incredible story and achievements began to earn her recognition, with a documentary about her filmed and a book, The Queen of Katwe: A Story of Life, Chess, and One Extraordinary Girl's Dream of Becoming a Grandmaster published about her in 2012, which Walt Disney Pictures optioned to create Queen of Katwe.

While it was chess that got her to where she is, Phiona’s strengths, empowering message and embodiment of the resilience of the human spirit goes beyond the board game – and are brought to life in Disney’s film.

“Our daily lives are like chess because you have to plan every move and understand what you hope to achieve,” she says.

“Like when I’m going through the day I have to think about how I’m going to get money for food, and when I’m playing chess I have to imagine how I’m going to get that king and win. You have to organise everything in your mind.”

Phiona’s strength and empowering message have been brought to life by Disney. Image: supplied.

She returned to school in 2010, graduated from St. Mbuga Vocational Secondary School this year as student president and is currently in the process of applying to college.

Phiona Mutesi is living proof that you are capable of anything you set your mind to - no matter your background, education or where you come from. She’s an inspiring role model to women young and old, a reminder that nothing comes easy - and she’s just 20 years old, with so much more to come.

Remember her name - you’ll be hearing a lot more of it.

Starring Golden Globe® nominee David Oyelowo, Oscar® winner Lupita Nyong’o and introducing Madina Nalwanga, Queen of Katwe is in cinemas December 1. With Advance Screenings in select cinemas on Saturday 26th and Sunday 27th November.