Queen of Katwe
by director Mira Nair
I stepped onto the African continent for the first time in 1989 to explore the idea that would become Mississippi Masala, a film about the hierarchy of color and the Asian expulsion by Idi Amin in 1972, starring a young Denzel Washington (“Africa is for Africans…Black Africans”). It was a scary time; post-civil War, soldiers and guns and roadblocks, bombed out city streets and bent lampposts with rusty wires reaching out into the sky. Little did I know then that I would fall in love here, give birth to a son, plant a garden and make Uganda my home for the next 27 years.
With a heart deeply ensconced in independent cinema, and a foot balanced in Hollywood, I saw firsthand the paucity of films being made about this place I came to know and love, its everyday struggles, the remarkable life and beauty of its people. If there were any films made in the West about Africa at all, they were usually bathed in colonial nostalgia, set in unspecific safari lands where giraffes roam, where nameless sculptural warriors stood with spears on twilight horizons, where gin and tonics were served as sundowners as white folk lived their aviatrix/farmer fantasies. In other words, not the Kampala I knew, with all its dignity and style, urban chaos, groups of children in brightly-coloured uniforms crisscrossing the landscape each day like coloured ribbons across its red earth streets.
It was this skewed version of Africa that led me to start a free film school, Maisha, now 12 years old. The mantra of Maisha is “if we don’t tell our own stories, no one else will,” and it is to that end that we have trained almost 650 alumni in the East African countries of Rwanda, Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda. Here, I am surrounded by a myriad of local stories and artists and storytellers, so imagine my surprise that the idea for my new film, Queen of Katwe, a story so local, came to me by way of Hollywood. One fine day I received a phone call from Tendo Nagenda, a Ugandan-born executive vice president of production at Disney, who was home in Kampala for a family reunion and came to my garden for tea. It was in my bamboo grove that he told me the story of Phiona Mutesi, a young corn seller turned chess prodigy, now studying less than 10 minutes away from my home in a boarding school in Makindye. I was immediately struck by her tale in which she competed in the Chess Olympiad in Russia completely illiterate, beginning school only after she had become a World Candidate Master in chess.
It is stories like these of triumph both ordinary and incredible that mark life in Uganda and the journey of bringing Queen of Katwe to big screens. We sought to share these stories when, alongside Maisha alumni, I directed the short film “A Fork, a Spoon and a Knight.” The story of Robert Katende’s difficult childhood but deeply fulfilling calling to help young people like Phiona Mutesi transcend their circumstances became the basis for the feature length Queen of Katwe. The talented actor David Oyelowo brings Robert Katende to life on screen. David is a chameleon…he allows himself to disappear into whichever role he is playing so that you don’t even recognize him. There’s so much gravitas in him and yet some mischief too, and he looks uncannily like Robert.
Robert is an incredible human being, but he is not a saint. He is completely morally-centered and unbelievably generous, and there is no sense of any contrivance in how he thinks, and he always thinks beyond himself. David Oyelowo completely alchemized that. He made the part his own with real humor and a deep emotionality that’s extremely moving, shifting it away from some kind of do-gooder or missionary into something much more complex.
We were incredibly fortunate to find young Madina Nalwanga, new to acting but not to performing, when she first auditioned for the role of Phiona. We were working in Ugandan English and English is not the language that Madina thinks in. But ultimately she internalized the scenes to such an extent that language didn’t matter. That was such a relief as I always wanted to film her. Her physicality is so arresting and her spirit so exquisite. The only way to describe her is luminous, and from our first shot to the last, she was phenomenal. She’s an extraordinarily poised young woman who, like many others whom the Queen of Katwe story is about, met every challenge with grace, humility and humor. She truly is the real thing.
Again, it is this spark that I saw in Lupita Nyong’o. I think of Harriet as a young Mother Courage, and that is the strength and beauty that is in Lupita. Uganda’s—and Phiona’s—story is more complex than one of winning and losing and success and failure. In this story we have captured what it means to reach a dream so beyond even your capacity to envision it for yourself, and that will always be a story worth telling.