Back to back big project announcements! I love days like this.
Just below this post, is the announcement that Steve McQueen and Harry Belafonte are teaming up to bring Paul Robeson’s life to the big screen. That piece of good news is being followed here by a revelation from revered director Mira Nair, that one of the stars of McQueen’s Oscar-winning "12 Years a Slave" – Lupita Nyong’o (you’ve heard of her, right?) – will star in Nair’s next film, which will be based on the book "Queen of Katwe," by Tim Crothers.
Apparently, Lupita’s attachment isn’t new, but I’m only just hearing about it, thanks to the below video clip a reader sent to me this evening. Although, I don’t think a lot of people are aware of it, because a Google search didn’t return many links on Lupita’s involvement. If you already knew about it, then this is old news. If you didn’t, then, well, now you know.
There doesn’t appear to have been an official press announcement.
Nair’s interest in the book’s adaptation was first reported on this site a year ago, when, in an interview with Newsweek Pakistan, she revealed that she was working on a film on Ugandan chess prodigy Phiona Mutesi.
Nair shared that the project was set up at Disney, although she didn’t give any further information on it – like how far along in the production process she was, or when the film can be expected.
Also known as "The Queen of Katwe," which is what the film is currently titled, Mutesi’s story was the inspiration for a book by Tim Crothers, titled, The Queen of Katwe: A Story of Life, Chess, and One Extraordinary Girl’s Dream of Becoming a Grandmaster. She’s also been the subject of short documentaries and news reports, capturing her inspiring story. I embedded one of them at the bottom of this post.
In case you’re wondering about Mira Nair’s Uganda connection, she founded Maisha Film Labs – a Uganda-based film training initiative (not-so unlike the Sundance Institute’s filmmaker labs, or the IFP’s filmmaker labs).
The goal of the Maisha Film Labs is to give aspiring filmmakers in the East African country the tools & knowledge to tell their own stories through film, which would then help foster a self-sustaining film industry in Uganda and vicinity, that will support and represent the interests of local audiences.
Mira Nair’s award-winning 1991 film, "Mississipi Masala" (which starred Denzel Washington, by the way, and probably my favorite of all her films), was shot, on location, in Kampala, Uganda. And, it’s also in Uganda, in 1988, where she met her husband, scholar, Mahmood Mamdani, while she was doing research for the film.
She also lives there.
Nair recounts her mission in starting the film labs: "One so rarely sees any images from the African continent that even vaguely resemble what it is like to live here, or to struggle here — the dignity and the power and the beauty of it… The enormous validation and entertainment one gets from seeing your own situation, and your own language, and your own struggle onscreen is a very powerful thing… If we don’t tell our own stories, no one else will."
Familiar words to all of you I’m sure, given ongoing discussions we have on this site about doing just that – taking control of *our* images and stories, and countering those rather limited depictions of *us* created by others.
Nair hopes to produce what she calls a "top-flight local cinema culture," in a region with a vibrant oral storytelling tradition, but with few opportunities to translate those stories into film, and with few institutions offering formal technical training. You can say the same thing about a number of other African countries.
But we can only assume that it’s with that same motivation and passion that Nair will tackle Phiona Mutesi’s story on film, with Lupita Nyong’o now attached to star as the teenage prodigy.
No ETA on the project yet, but I’m definitely anxious to see what Ms Nair and Nyong’o are cooking up here. I smell what could be another potential Oscar nomination (and maybe even win) for the actress. It reads like that kind of project. And with Disney’s backing, I’m assuming it won’t go unnoticed.
With a lucrative, long-term Lancôme contract inked, Lupita is very likely not struggling for cash right now, and so, can probably afford to be picky about the projects she decides to take on. And so far, one could say she has. She certainly could’ve parlayed her Oscar win into a myriad of roles, in a million movies (I’d like to believe she’s been offered quite a few roles since "12 Years a Slave"); but she’s been selective in terms of projects and filmmakers she works with. As of right now, we know she has a role in the upcoming "Star Wars Episode VII," although what character she plays is being kept a secret, despite all the rumors and speculation. It’s a super high-profile movie, based on the super high-profile and almost universally-known and loved franchise, directed by a high-profile director in J.J. Abrams, that will only expose her to an even broader audience. She’s also developing an adaptation of another novel, by a celebrate, quite popular author and speaker in Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie, titled "Americanah," which she’ll also star in, with Brad Pitt’s backing, via his production company; and now there’s this project with an acclaimed, veteran filmmaker with international recognition, in Mira Nair.
She’s in a great place right now! This is the dream for many, and she’s living it.
If you’d like to buy Tim Crothers’ book, click here.
Here’s the video clip in which Nair reveals that Lupita will star in "Queen of Katwe." Below it, you’ll find a short documentary on Phiona Mutesi:
Watch the short documentary on Mutesi below: