The Inspiring True Story Behind the Disney Film Queen of Katwe
by Danielle Dorsey
One of the most anticipated films of the fall season, Queen of Katwe is the true story of Phiona Mutesi, a Ugandan chess prodigy who became a Woman Candidate Master after her performances at the 2010 World Chess Olympiads. Phiona’s story first went viral several years ago after sports writer Tim Crothers published an in-depth profile on the chess champion for ESPN. Crothers was so captured by Phiona’s story, he went on to publish a full biography titled The Queen of Katwe: A Story of Life, Chess, and One Extraordinary Girl’s Dream of Becoming a Grandmaster. Walt Disney Pictures quickly optioned the rights to the book.
Directed by Indian-American filmmaker Mira Nair, some would consider Queen of Katwe a risky move for Disney. For an almost ninety-year-old production company that only featured its first Black princess in 2009, it reinforces a commitment to telling diverse stories. With a gifted cast that includes Oscar winner Lupita Nyong’o and Golden Globe winner David Oyelowo, it won’t be difficult to persuade audiences to see this film, but it’s Phiona Mutesi’s moving underdog story that will stay with viewers long after the credits finish rolling.
The film is the first starring role for Madina Nalwanga, who plays a teenage Phiona Mutesi. One day she follows her brother to the community center where Robert Atende, played by David Oyelowo, teaches the children chess. Curious how a mere pawn can transform into a queen, Phiona shows immediate promise when she is taught the game. Her teammates bring easy comic relief and I was surprised to learn that all of the children were locals and had no prior acting experience.
Queen of Katwe was shot predominantly in Kampala, Uganda, and offers a glimpse into Phiona’s life growing up in the neighboring slums of Katwe. Phiona and her family don’t just live month-to-month, they live minute-to-minute. Split-second decisions have unexpected ramifications, and when Phiona’s brother Brian is struck in a hit-and-run accident, paying for a ride to the hospital means facing sudden eviction. Despite these tenuous circumstances, joy surrounds them. The children turn labor into laughter as they spend their days selling maize, dancing and singing to tempt buyers. Phiona’s mother Harriet, played by Lupita N’yongo, is stern and endlessly hurried, but her pursed lips quickly turn to a grin whenever her children’s laughter is near. So often Africa is portrayed in films as wartorn and starved, but in Queen of Katwe it beams with vibrance.
Chess serves as just the first rung in a long ladder of opportunities for Phiona, who along with her brother Brian is taught how to read and write by Atende and his wife. As she advances in pursuit of the Grandmaster title, she struggles to reconcile her two worlds. In Katwe, she is a local celebrity, but her bed is still a concrete floor and she is forced to study chess by candlelight. At competitions her rivals’ advantage is obvious, with some of them hiring trainers who fly in from all over the world. There will be few dry eyes in the theater as audiences watch Phiona courageously tackle the odds and travel to Siberia to compete in the 2010 Chess Olympiad. As she steps off the plane into an unfamiliar winter wonderland, she must hold fast to the wisdom passed on from her Coach Robert Atende: “What you are used to is not where you belong.”
Queen of Katwe is set for a limited release in North America on September 23, 2016, followed by a general theatrical release on September 30.