In 2012, Tim Crothers wrote Queen of Katwe about young chess prodigy Phiona Mutesi from the Katwe district of the Ugandan capital of Kampala. Crothers, a former Sports Illustrated writer, managed to capture an inspirational tale of a young African woman in sport that rarely attracts attention. The book was reviewed well and got noticed in Hollywood for its plucky feel good story.
Disney senior creative executive Tendo Nagenda was of Ugandan descent and immediately optioned the book for the studio. He then enlisted the help of Oscar nominated director Mira Nair (Salaam Bombay) also of Uganda to sell the studio on the merits of a story. This wasn’t as easy as it sounded since the story was primarily set in Africa covering a sport not high on the lists of Americans.
Disney greenlit the project and in conjunction with sister company ESPN Films, a story and casting began to take place. The part of Phiona Mutesi went to 15 year old Madina Nalwanga found at a community dance class in Uganda. The newcomer was chosen after looking at over 700 girls in the country. The cast was rounded out with Lupita Nyong’o (12 Years a Slave) cast as Phiona’s mother Harriet and David Oyelowo (Selma) as Robert Katende.
A feelgood movie can be cliched and lack nuance but Nair’s direction captures the story of Phiona well. The filming in Katwe feels like a character unto itself. It has colour, texture and depths that give you a feel of the hardscrabble life of the poor in Kampala. Some of the scarier aspects of that community described in the book are left out of the movie but the sunny aspects of the vibrancy of the people are mitigated by what they don’t have and that finding a place to live and eat is foremost on everyone’s mind.
Phiona’s father is dead and her mother, sister and two brothers and mother work every day to feed themselves. She looks longingly at the children with school uniforms and know that this life will never be hers. She can’t read or write and her future probably will lead on the same path of her older sister who has taken up with an older man.
As it turns out, Phiona’s future lies in the unlikely sport of chess taught by Robert Katende in a Christian ministry using sport as a youth outreach. Katende acts as coach while he waits for an engineering job to come up. He knows something about grinding poverty as he was a youth who lost his mother twice. Somehow, he overcame those obstacles and graduated first in his class in university. Still, he waits for his chance at the ministry while living hand to mouth with his wide and child.
Phiona has many obstacles to overcome and throughout the strength of her mother and her coach and to some extent her faith propel her from one championship to another. It is interesting to note that one of her humbling defeats takes place in Russia in a chess match against a Canadian competitor.
In the hands of other filmmakers, it is easy to how this story could have been ruined. A white character might have been made a focal point to better reach audiences, an older actress might have been recruited to play the lead possibly from the west, the Christian faith might have been pushed hard as a motivator or the source of transformation. None of that happened though. Instead a delightful, nuanced and character focused story unfolded that took the audience in and never let it go.
The end titles of the movie cleverly show the actors and the actual people they played and where they are now. Disney magic is often seen in animation but live action is sometimes hit and miss. This particular story shows what can be done with maturity and great talent. One of the finer movies to come out this fall and one deserving a good audience in seeing it.
This has been an editorial by John Dobbin.
To read more from John, visit his blog Observations, Reservations, Conversations