Herbert J. Cohen
Herbert J. Cohen

Kosher Movies: Queen of Katwe

When I was studying for my doctorate in Literature at Georgia State University, in addition to writing a dissertation I had to pass examinations in five literary domains, one of which was Modern British Literature. Unfortunately, I did not pass that exam. But, happily, I was given permission to take it again the following semester. I then passed it with flying colors.

In fact, after studying for the test the second time, I began enjoying the writers of this period more than I ever had before. Thomas Hardy, Joseph Conrad, William Butler Yeats, T.S. Eliot, James Joyce became my literary polestars, writers I would return to often as I taught high school English Literature for over 25 years. My initial failure to appreciate and comprehend their authorial virtuosity spurred me to revisit these literary giants and gain a fuller appreciation of their unique literary voices and greatness. Failing to pass the Modern British Literature exam the first time around turned out to be a blessing.

There is a line in Queen of Katwe, a story of Phiona Mutesi, a ten-year old Ugandan girl who masters the game of chess, which expresses the positive side of failure. Phiona says: “Losing teaches me how to play better.” She arrives at this epiphany after several years of chess competition.

Her story begins in Katwe, a slum in Kampala, Uganda. Here her mother and siblings struggle to survive by selling maize in the market. One day she meets Robert Katende, a teacher who coaches soccer at a local school and teaches children to play chess at a local youth center. From that moment, her world changes.

Phiona observes the children playing chess and develops a curiosity about the game. Katende invites her to participate and she soon becomes a top player in the group. Katende sees the latent talent in Phiona and takes her and other members of the chess club to a national high school tournament at an affluent local school. To the surprise of many, Phiona wins first prize. Her chess skills continue to improve as she participates in many competitions and tournaments, and gradually realizes that chess can be the instrument through which she and her family can prosper economically.

In her first appearance at the Chess Olympiad in Russia, things do not end up as she anticipates. Facing formidable competition, Phiona loses to her Canadian opponent. She returns home lacking self-esteem and wondering whether she possesses the ability to become a grand master of the game. Coach Katende inspires her to continue with chess in the face of defeat, arguing that Phiona, with dedication and practice, can achieve her goals.

How to deal with failure is an important life strategy because we all fail at one time or another. Jewish educator, writer, and lecturer Marnie Winston-Macauley discusses why kids need to fail. She suggests that we should use failure wisely to teach our children success.

Winston-Macauley laments the fact that often well-intentioned parents want their children’s lives to be free of failure. This to her is a mistake because by avoiding opportunities to fail, children avoid opportunities for success. Indeed, the road to genuine success and self-esteem is difficult. She writes: “life involves tests, and demands struggles. As it says in Proverbs, The righteous falls seven times and stands up (Proverbs, 24:16). There are going to be falls and failures, that is guaranteed. The critical test is who has the perseverance to get up. Failure can be one of our children’s best teachers and a key strategy in fostering self-esteem. Failure is neither a tragedy nor a life failure. Failure allows children to develop a Plan B, a better way. It encourages children to create new endings with new effort and persistence.”

This is what Phiona does in Queen of Katwe. Failure to her is not terminal, merely a bump in the road. Armed with support from her coach and family, she triumphs over adversity and becomes a chess champion.

About the Author
Originally from Mt. Vernon, New York, Herbert J. Cohen served in the pulpit rabbinate in Atlanta at the beginning of his career. After six years, he moved into the educational rabbinate and served for 23 years as Principal of Yeshiva High School of Atlanta. In 2010, he and his wife came on aliyah to Israel. His latest book, published by Urim Publishers, is "Kosher Movies: A Film Critic Discovers Life Lessons at the Cinema." He may be reached at rabbihjco@msn.com.
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