Directed by Mira Nair, Queen of Katwe was released in September 2016 to critical acclaim. It tells the based-on-reality story of Phiona Mutesi, a 10-year-old girl from the Katwe slum of Kampala, Uganda, who learns to play chess well enough to become the first titled female player in Ugandan history.
The story, based on a book by former Sports Illustrated writer Tim Crothers, revolves around the relationships between Phiona (Madina Nalwanga) and the two most influential people in her life: her mother Nakku Harriet (Lupita Nyong’o), and her chess mentor Robert Katende (David Oyelowo). While many protege movies center on an idealized role of the coach, Nair allows the women in her film to share the success of creating a champion. We come to understand a bit about Katende’s dedication to his mission work, but we can also see both a projection of Phiona’s entire life without chess and the familial support structure that helps her succeed.
Nair was instrumental in the film’s casting of African actors for a film set entirely in Africa. In addition to recognizable actors Nyong’o and Oyelowo, Nair chose Nalwanga among the 700 African girls who auditioned to play the title character of Phiona. Over a hundred Ugandans were used in scenes shot in Kampala and Johannesburg, lending credibility and authenticity to the storytelling on screen.
The film does not present people experiencing poverty as visually bleak. Phiona and her community are adorned in bright colors and connect with each other over food and music. Despite their economic struggles, characters exhibit strength, intelligence and love. The humanity of those inhabiting the slums of Kampala is only questioned through the eyes of those with more privilege, with Robert serving as the bridge between worlds. We see tensions between economic classes play out in Phiona’s own emotional reaction to failure on a big stage, believing it to be the only way to lift her family out of their hardships.
The story’s real-life characters participated closely in the project, from Nair’s initial interviews to the end credits, which brought together actors and their real-world counterparts. It was moving to see fiction reconnect with fact on screen, underscoring the humanity of Nair’s film-making.
Queen of Katwe is available to stream on Amazon Prime Video, Apple iTunes, Fandango, Google Play, Microsoft, and YouTube. Follow Queen of Katwe on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and the film’s website, and follow Mira Nair on Facebook and Twitter.