Upon first impression, actor David Oyelowo recalls: "When I first got the script… the first thing I thought was, did Disney get the memo?.." I have to commend Disney for making this movie they finally gave us something different. Queen of Katwe, Disney's latest upcoming film, chronicles Phiona Mutesi's rise as Uganda's top chess player, embodies a moment in American cinema that many of us have been yearning for: for once we're given strong African leads and a plot line that does not play on obvious cliches. Oyelowo goes on to note: "It's an extraordinary thing to have a movie star who looks like this (Lupita Nyong'o), to have a fashion icon who looks like this, to have an Oscar winner who looks like this and who could also fit into being a corn seller in Uganda seamlessly. That has never happened before".
The film represents a vow to upholding the truth within storytelling. When speaking on the plot of Queen of Katwe, Director Mira acknowledges: "That's the story of everyday life….that captures the joy and the dignity of everyday people, ordinary people living extraordinarily difficult situations but triumphing over them to achieve what they really are there for and that is the story of Africa that we never see on our screens… And for me this was exactly what I wanted to make…"
Director Mira Nair and some of the film's main cast members sat in on a live Q&A session after the film's press screening Tuesday night. The comments they made about filming Queen of Katwe were just as inspiring and uplifting as the movie itself.
What about this story stood out to you and made you want to be involved?
Lupita Nyong'o: This was a very intimate story. Often times when it comes to stories based on the African continent, its larger scale stories of dictators and wars and famines...but here we just have a small girl with a big dream who achieves it. There is a female character at the center of it and that it's a story about realizing your dreams and the power of dreams. ..it's [the script] an anthem for the younger generation of how valuable it is to find out what you're passionate about and put your mind and heart for that because then you are of use in the world….Phiona couldn't have known that when she was pursuing this [chess] that it would one day pull her family out of poverty. She also couldn't have known that her story would one day become a larger story, in Hollywood, on a global platform and that she would one day be an icon for her country….So for me this is about the power of putting yourself to your passions and what good it can do in the world.
How much did you all spend with the people you were portraying?
Mira Nair: The person I really asked to meet was Harriet, her [Phiona's] mother...Robert took me with Harriet to all the places that once she was evicted from her home, where she had stayed..That was just the kind of spine of the entire trajectory of this family...Where she was absolutely a fierce mother hen refusing to let the children go but the places that she had lived in with them was literally a shack, a veranda of a shop and abandon church, everything that you see in the film...Everything was exposed to the elements. Never were they safe and secured and that was very moving, to see the dignity, the formidable courage. The entire screenplay emerged from knowing and being Phiona, Robert and Harriet.
Lupita Nyong'o: One of my first stops was to visit Harriet. Robert Katende took me.. to translate for me, and I sat with her for an afternoon. We just talked about her life and I observed her...She's very grounded, very enigmatic. There's a reserved quality to her but also a warmth. Those are qualities that I wanted to honor in my performance of her. I just talked to her about her childhood and how she got to the point she got to. She's also a very practical woman and a woman who will sacrifice everything except her principles...and I wanted to portray that in my performance of her.
Mira Nair: All the kids in Queen of Katwe came from either Katwe or a neighboring community. Most of them come from a life very very similar to what we have played. They were our teachers constantly. We shot in the real places..so the community, whether they were cast as extras or not we're in this film.
How does this project stand out from other movies that you've done?
Lupita Nyong'o: People leave crying like they did for 12 Years a Slave but they're happy. It's uplifting...we had so many moments of laughter and joy making this film. My heart swelled with love in this film. I'm not a mother but I had to mother these children and I was so nervous about doing that. But, they really opened themselves up to me. I remember the first time I met Madina, someone told her she was going to be playing your mom and she just said "hi mom" and she's been calling me mom since. There was such a curiosity about this craft called acting that these children came with. They were so observant. I watched Madina get deeper and deeper with every take and that was so encouraging. There's an immediacy with which we made this film, a sense of presence that would renew with every single take. For me it was such a fertile experience and I'm forever grateful.
Interested in seeing this work of art that myself and the cast is raving about? Queen of Katwe premieres in theatres September 23, 2016.