Queen of Katwe: Much bigger than one girl’s story

There are a number of startling details about Ugandan chess prodigy Phiona Mutesi’s story, such as this one: when she watched a big-screen movie for the first time, it was at the Toronto Film Festival last month and it was a film that was based on her life — Queen of Katwe.

The film, directed by Mira Nair (Monsoon Wedding, Salaam Bombay!), stars Lupita Nyong’o as Phiona’s mother Harriet Mutesi, David Oyelowo as Phiona’s coach Robert Katende and mesmerising Ugandan newcomer Madina Nalwanga as the young Phiona Mutesi.

Four years ago, when she was 16 years old, Mutesi’s story of triumph over adversity captivated American writer Tim Crothers to turn an ESPN article about her into a book he named The Queen of Katwe: A Story of Life, Chess and One Extraordinary Girl’s Dream of Becoming a Grandmaster.

It was a book that would, in the same year, end up in the hands of Walt Disney Studios’ current executive vice-president of production, Tendo Nagenda, a son of Uganda with a seat at a life-altering table.

Nagenda, then the senior creative executive at Walt Disney Studios, developed the project into production, placing it in the distinguished hands of director Nair, who was in Johannesburg to present the film at its South African premiere on Wednesday night.

“I commend this man, who took a great leap of commissioning a modern African story,’’ said Nair minutes before the film started. ‘’I usually joke and say it’s the first Disney film made in contemporary Africa without a single animal in it.’’

In 2003, nine-year-old Phiona Mutesi discovered the game of chess after becoming a member of the Pioneers, a chess club run by Robert Katende, an out-of-work civil engineer and football player turned missionary. He was passionate about developing the talent of the children of Katwe, a large informal settlement in Kampala, through chess.

When Phiona, the third of widow Harriet Mutesi’s five children, started playing, she was an illiterate vegetable hawker. But she became captivated by a game that her coach quickly realised she had incalculable proficiency in.

“Winning’’ most opponents that she encountered, Phiona leaped into and over chess leagues beyond the borders of Katwe, Kampala and, eventually, Uganda to become a decorated player who captivated others not only because of her skill, but also because she was a girl from an unlikely place playing an unlikely game, with a goal to be a chess master.

Besides the fact that it’s an African story with Africans at its centre and periphery, it is just as remarkable to have Disney money and creativity working to tell your humble true story while you are still alive and while it is still unfolding.

Says Kenyan-Mexican actress Nyong’o, who won the 2012 best supporting actress Oscar for her breakout role in 12 Years a Slave, says: “I was drawn to the story first and foremost. I saw the magic that Disney was attracted to.

“Disney believes in sparking dreams and imagination, especially for children. This film has that magic, and it is true on top of everything. When I received the script, I committed to the film within 10 pages. It was an oasis in a desert. Nothing like that had crossed my desk. I was so excited to be telling a realistic, passionate and enlivening African story.”

In telling the story, Nair, who has lived in Uganda for 27 years, knew she had to portray Phiona’s Katwe, a mere 15 minutes from Nair’s house, in an authentic way. That meant getting the “villagers” right.

In many ways, although Madina Nalwanga is spellbinding as Phiona, it’s the strength of the supporting characters that makes it a full picture, from Oyelowo’s performance as the upright coach to those of the delightful members of the Pioneers chess club.

Referring to the film’s most notable quip — a finger snap the children do when excited — Nyong’o explains: “For me, I’m just so excited that there’s gonna be kids all over the world saying things from this film and relating to the film, with the finger-snapping and all that.”

Queen of Katwe heralds a new era in cinematic storytelling by fusing Disney’s mandate for producing feel-good universal narratives with the novelty of African stories. This places it in the unique position of giving an international audience what they want but have never really seen.

“What’s so important and poignant from this film is that it’s told with humanity, and humanity doesn’t have a nationality and it doesn’t have an ethnicity,” says Nyong’o. “Mira tells this story with the specificity of Katwe but with the universality of humanity. A small girl with a big dream who achieves it.”

It’s difficult to review or critique this film without inserting my subjective lens. I didn’t just watch this film as a journalist; I watched this film as a black African woman who doesn’t leave any parts of her politics, critical eye and compassion at the door before engaging with any piece of narrative.

Before viewing it last week, I expected an “ag shame’’ Disney movie that I might or might not review because political newspapers and Disney movies aren’t known bedfellows. I anticipated some eye-roll-inducing treatment of an Africa that is perennially misunderstood and misrepresented by a problematic Western gaze, where Africa exists in binaries: it’s to be pitied or explored, helped or exploited, and the people are never considered for their nuances and humanity.

Even celebrities I love, such as Meryl Streep and Ellen DeGeneres, have fallen into the boring-to-death trap of “I went on safari in Africa’’, with no country specified.

So, when I was crying within the first 30 minutes of the film, it wasn’t only because the story unfolding before me was brilliant but because of a relief that had been building from a lifetime of not seeing one’s story, one’s self, one’s looks, one’s accents, one’s incongruous sensibilities and peculiar idiosyncrasies represented properly, with sensitivity and integrity, on a big screen. And I’m not even Ugandan.

Explains Nair: “Besides the fact that it comes with the dignity and the struggle, there was still a spirit of joy we call ‘lifest’ in Uganda. I’m very aware of the tropes and I have a high bullshit radar … so it was really important for me to have the story be told in a prismatic way.”

That comes through in how, for example, poverty is filmed from an altered perspective, from within instead of without: it’s not gazed at with an obsession to “help” but is the setting for a million stories that exist within it anyway.

There’s a scene in which Harriet buys paraffin from a Katwe spaza shop. No focus is placed on the fact that paraffin is sold in very small plastic bags no bigger than ubhompi, the flavoured “ices” that many children in South African townships suck on during summer. In terms of the characters’ relationships, it’s about love, a black love elevated from the politicised, retaliatory state that we’ve come to define it as.

This is evidenced by a moment in which Katende the coach apologetically tells his wife that he has turned down a job because of his commitment to the Pioneers. Her response is astounding: “Why do you do this?” she asks with a twisted face. “Why are you sorry for doing the thing you love? This is this family’s work.” And with that, they hug and kiss through the sacrifice.

Coming from a cinéma vérité and documentary background, Nair says her favourite kinds of film are those “where I can tell the story of someone who comes from the place from which the story is told, putting them opposite legendary actors. It’s that alchemy of something that is pure in a child opposite a skilled actor that makes the job of a director [special].”

Speaking of her novice teen lead, Nair says: “Madina sold corn for years; she didn’t need a prop master to tell her how to hold a basket — she taught us. I wanted that dignity of not complaining, not self-pitying, to come through and Madina has that ‘don’t cry for me’ dignity.”

This was Madina Nalwanga’s first role — the casting agents found her after auditioning more than 700 girls. In a technique that speaks to the magic of this universal story, the film’s end credits feature portraits of the actors next to those of their real-life characters, whose stories are still unfolding.

That’s another notable detail about this film: it’s unequivocally a story of now, where the actors are mirroring experiences that aren’t in the distant past.

Speaking of bringing a filmic dimension to chess, Nair says this was by far the most challenging aspect of making the film — “making chess interesting on screen”.

The real-life Robert Katende was the film’s chess consultant and taught all the children to play, especially Madina, who had to learn the moves that Phiona has become famous for.

Whether it’s a box-office hit or not is not something that won’t hinder the critical success of the film, but it is something that worries the director.

I read some reviews on websites such as Shadow and Act, which mar the critical glow of the story by reporting low audience engagement on its opening weekend and how American audiences might not be enticed to see an African film without a white saviour or one that exists outside the popular tropes about the continent.

“Oh, I hope it’s doing well,” Nair says nervously when I ask if she’s concerned about the world’s response.

“It’s been ecstatically reviewed, probably the best reviews of my career by the mainstream top critics, but the audiences have taken so much from this film too and Disney is really loving the effect of that.

“It might be a fully Ugandan film but people are reacting to it in Milwaukee or whatever, and I think it’s so radical that I’m bringing literally my street to your street.’’

Listen to the discussion below: 

Queen of Katwe opens in cinemas on October 14. An audio interview of the interview with Lupita Nyong’o and Mira Nair is available on the Mail & Guardian’s SoundCloud account.

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