We all know what a heartwarming Disney sports drama feels like. Glossy, sentimental, going for rousing win moments. When Ugandan-Belizean Disney executive VP production Tendo Nagenda read Tim Crothers’ 2013 ESPN magazine feature about Phiona Mutesi, a chess master who rose up from selling corn in the Kampala, Uganda slum of Katwe, he knew he’d found the right story. But he knew that if it was going to resonate, this couldn’t be soft-focus or glib. He had to find a director with the sensibility to keep it real.
For that, he approached veteran New York filmmaker Mira Nair, who has also lived in the Ugandan capital of Kampala for 27 years. He invited himself to tea, and she jumped on board.
“I loved her, she was so self-possessed and modest and enigmatic, and full of mischief,” she said. “We made each other laugh.” Eventually Nair cast David Oyelowo, Lupita Nyong’o, and newcomer Madina Nalwanga (as Mutesi), and shot it 15 minutes from her home—in the slums of Katwe, where many of the unknowns in the cast still lived.
“Queen of Katwe” played well with critics and audiences at Toronto because it’s not that Hollywood female empowerment story. It feels gritty, vivid, real. We get caught up with this genuinely moving story of mentor, eager student, and fiercely protective mother. “12 Years a Slave” Oscar-winner Nyong’o reminds us of her many depths and could earn another supporting actress nomination. Nyong’o got to meet Mutesi’s mother, Harriet. “She has formidable enigmatic strength,” said Nair. “She’s utterly dignified, exactly like Lupita, the dignity of having that strength and also not revealing everything about herself. “
The only direction Nair gave Oyelowo was that “Uganda is one of the most courteous nations,” she said. “A self-effacing sweetness is the general character, not assertive and loud, it is not Stentorian, it is the other way. He was there, he achieved that sweetness with humility.”
Nair sought to avoid the standard-issue individual empowerment drama in favor of a prismatic story.
“It takes a village,” she said. “It takes a coach who sees the mettle and the intelligence in this girl Phiona. It takes her mother who doesn’t want her child to dream because she will be disappointed, then she is brought by her child’s own determination and skill around to the fact that maybe this is possible for her, she’ll do anything, sacrifice her own promise of womanhood, to make sure Phiona is on her way. It’s not just one person’s ascent, it can’t be, it’s a community.”
Nair was often brought into the lives of her cast. “The prop master had to figure out how she would hold the basket of corn on her head, and he had all this fancy stuff he had done. But Madina walked in and had sold corn for years. She knew how to put it on, how to bathe with half an inch of water. You can’t teach or direct that convincingly. It’s wonderful to be able to know the truth and then get it all aspects of it.”
Nair reveled in the colors of the place. “The great joy visually: the color is red earth, the flora is that kind of hysterical green, bricks are made everywhere you go because the clay is so rich, the stacks of wood are sold every day. The prep school itself, it’s fantastic to show the class hierarchy, like any society they have the elite and the kids on the street.” Who go in and beat their entitled rivals.
Finally, “Queen of Katwe” shows what can happen when Hollywood opens its doors to different stories and storytellers. Nair’s vivid details and understanding of this colorful setting adds dimension to what would otherwise be a familiar studio formula. Disney also allowed Nair to create her world, to do things her way. (Other experiences with the studios, including Fox Searchlight’s “Amelia,” have not been so felicitous.)
“This has been by far the most positive experience [in Hollywood],” she said. “They have respected and embraced and accepted the maverick. I am most at home being allowed to do what I do: ‘Monsoon Wedding,’ ‘The Namesake,’ ‘Mississippi Masala.’ I am Queen of Katwe. These worlds I know how to tell in a way that no one else can tell, if you let me. I like to create an environment where no one needs to allow me. I can do it myself.”