A vibrant, powerful human story that proves that genius is, indeed, everywhere…we just need to be acknowledge and nurture it.
A young girl’s incredible journey from the streets of Uganda to a world-class chess player embodies the strength of the human spirit in the inspiring Queen of Katwe.
It was an article by Tim Crothers in ESPN Magazine where John Carls (Rango, Where the Wild Things Are) first learned about the work of Sports Outreach, a faith-based organization that uses sports to make a difference in the lives of at-risk youth in the poorest areas of the world.
Based on a remarkable true story, Queen of Katwe is directed by Mira Nair from a screenplay by William Wheeler.
Realising its cinematic potential, Carls was especially interested in the work of Robert Katende, who runs a chess program for Katwe children from a makeshift Agape Church utilizing the game as a platform to engage and sharpen their minds.
A soccer coach for Sports Outreach, Katende was a civil engineer searching for a job that would financially support his wife and two children when his faith, compassion and love of soccer led him to Katwe. This led to the development of his chess program, which over the next few years helped shape the lives of countless children, Phiona Mutesi being one of them. The fact that it was a true story seemed almost as implausible as the story itself.
“Before I met Robert and started playing chess, I had lost all hope,” says Mutesi. “I was sad because I recently lost my dad and there was no money for school and I thought I would always be living on the streets. Since then, I have travelled to many different countries and met many wonderful people who I never expected to meet, which has helped restore my hope. I thank God that I met Robert and learned to play chess, because it is chess that made all these things possible.”
Phiona’s incredible journey from the streets of Uganda to a world-class chess player embodies the strength of the human spirit, and Disney, a studio with a successful track record for bringing fact-based stories to the big screen, was soon on board. Up first, was the search for a director – someone with a strong visual aesthetic who was just as passionate about the story.
Tendo Nagenda, an executive vice president of production at the studio, immediately thought of Mira Nair. A director best known for her lush and vibrant films spanning a variety of cultures, Nair’s credits include the Oscar®-nominated “Salaam Bombay!,” which also won the Camera D’Or at the 1988 Cannes Film Festival; “Mississippi Masala”; “Monsoon Wedding,” for which she won the Golden Lion at the 2001 Venice Film Festival; and “The Namesake.”
Nair has had a home in Kampala for the past 27 years and is the founder of Maisha Film Lab, a film school for East Africans. In Kampala to attend a family reunion, Nagenda, whose father is Ugandan, pitched Phiona’s story to Nair. The director was immediately riveted, and could hardly believe this extraordinary young girl lived just minutes away from her home, yet she had never heard her name before.
“It was quite ironic,” Nair remembers, “As one of my mantras is that if we don’t tell our stories, no one else will, yet here was a story that was so local yet came from Hollywood.”
Producer Lydia Dean Pilcher has worked with Nair on more than 10 films and she, too, fell in love with the story. “I love the female protagonist, the coming-of-age story and watching this young girl change and grow into this mature sophisticated teenager in the course of learning the game of chess,” she says.
The director began forging relationships with the story’s central characters to better familiarize herself with the timeline of events and recruited William Wheeler (“The Reluctant Fundamentalist”) to write the screenplay. Wheeler, who also happens to be a tremendous chess player, joined Nair and Pilcher in Kampala, where they spent time with Phiona, Harriet and Katende and many of the original students in his chess program, whom he affectionately refers to as his Pioneers.
“Robert told me Phiona didn’t believe in herself for a long time, but when I first met her I was struck by her maturity and poise,” says Pilcher. “She had this lovely sense of self-possession, and then I noticed that Stellah, another Pioneer, had the same quality, as did Gloria, and it has to be because they’re all involved in the chess program. All of them are living on very basic levels of subsistence, yet they all feel so very powerful.”
Because this was based on a true story, Wheeler approached the screenplay with great care and respect. “You can’t create your own dramatic moments and story arcs,” he explains. “You have to find the critical moments when the characters make important decisions or have their greatest setbacks and build the flow of the screenplay around those.”
It turned out to be an incredibly redemptive experience. “This story taught me to encourage my kids to value what they can learn, who they can be and what they can do for others,” Wheeler continues. “It taught me to appreciate the people and things in my life.”
Finding actors to play characters based on real people is not always easy, but director Mira Nair’s first choice for the role of Robert Katende was an actor who had electrified audiences with his portrayal of a beloved historical figure two years earlier. The role was Martin Luther King Jr. in the film “Selma,” and the actor was David Oyelowo.
Classically trained and of Nigerian-British descent, Oyelowo was eager to work with the acclaimed director. “I’ve always admired her films,” he says, “‘Mississippi Masala’ had a profound effect on me growing up.”
He was enthusiastic after reading the “Queen of Katwe” screenplay, and was inspired by the passion and humility of the man who chooses to use his talents to give back to the community in which he resides. “One thing that really surprised me was how heartwarming the story is and how these people manage to be so full of joy in spite of such very difficult lives,” Oyelowo says. “And it’s that joy that enables them to transcend their surroundings.”
In addition, he was thrilled to be a part of a film that would cast a positive light on a part of the world not always viewed with optimism. “As a Nigerian, I’m frustrated by how little we see of the real face of Africa in Western movies, how we’re always confronted with the dark side – dictators, genocide, disease – when I know this continent is filled with tremendous stories of hope, triumph, love and joy,” he explains. “This was one of those stories filmed in Africa, played by Africans and filmed by a woman who has lived on the continent for nearly 30 years, so I knew we were in good hands.”
The role of Harriet was written for Lupita Nyong’o, whom Nair has known for years. “I think of Harriet as a young Mother Courage, and that is the strength and beauty that is in Lupita,” says Nair. A child of East Africa, an alumnus of Maisha Film Lab and an intern at Nair’s production company Mirabai Films in New York, Nyong’o shot to fame with her Oscar®-winning performance in “12 Years a Slave,” which she followed with roles in “Star Wars: A Force Awakens” and “The Jungle Book.”
Nyong’o broke down and cried after reading just 10 pages of the script. “It was the first time in a while that I had been so enlivened, inspired and challenged by a role I was considering,” she remembers. “I immediately sent an email to my representatives saying, ‘I must do this film.’”
“The story has a lot to do with the power of dreams,” Nyong’o continues. “Robert believes that dreams are what can manifest a life well lived, while for Harriet, dreaming is dangerous because it fills you with expectations that life may not be able to meet. For her, it is a tug of war between love and fear: to love is to fear for those you love. But then she realizes that it is her fear that is holding her child back and she has to learn to let go of it.”
In the competitive and fast-paced world in which we live, people tend to believe that nothing breeds confidence better than success, but producer Lydia Dean Pilcher disagrees, saying, “It’s not about winning or losing, it’s about honoring yourself enough to come to the table and play the game, to risk and accept failure. That’s what builds resilience and success.”
According to David Oyelowo, “Robert Katende’s ultimate goal is to give these kids a sense of self-respect, self-awareness and knowledge that they can change their fate by applying themselves and use the life lessons they learn from chess to change their destiny. Chess is just the conduit.”
The remarkable and unassuming coach, father figure and mentor to a group of children from the slums of Kampala, Katende inspires these kids to believe in themselves through the simplicity of a game. A refugee of Uganda’s Bush War, he survived a harsh childhood to become an excellent student and a skilled athlete, eventually earning an academic scholarship to college where he received a degree in civil engineering.
Katende founded the SOM Chess Academy in 2004, and since that time it has transformed thousands of lives. The Academy became his passion and full-time profession, and his first group of chess players, his Pioneers, blazed a trail of championships across Africa. Today, the Academy has centers all across Uganda, including five in different slums in Kampala, seven in villages in Gulu and one in the community of Jinja. In addition to providing an environment in which children learn to play the game, the Academy enrolls its youth in vocational training to help them become self-reliant and empower them to work and attain their life goals.
“I believe that chess is one of the most effective tools for empowerment and teaching life principles,” says Katende. “I always tell my students that chess is life, because whatever you go through in life, you can actually find on the board. And that connectivity, I sometimes call it ‘integration,’ is very important. For instance, we face many challenges in life. Sometimes you are caught unaware, whereby you have to plan something else. Do you give up, or do you re-strategize and see how best you can get around it?”
Two years after Phiona Mutesi discovered Robert Katende’s chess program she became Uganda’s junior champion. Three years later, she became the national champion. Then in 2012 at the age of 16 at her second Olympiad, she became a Woman Candidate Master, the first step towards Grand Master, which is what she ultimately aspires to.
It is an extraordinary trajectory, but for Katende it was not about chess, it was about playing the game of life and achieving one’s potential, whatever the odds.
“In life, there are moments of depression,” Katende says. “There are moments of sacrifice. There are moments when you feel like you have fewer resources at your disposal, like the capture of many of your chess pieces. You have to realize that those pieces are no longer of use to you and instead focus on what you do have and how you can make that work for you.”
Our daily lives are like chess because you have to plan every move and understand what you hope to achieve,” adds Phiona Mutesi. “Like when I’m going through the day I have to think about how I’m going to get money for food, and when I’m playing chess I have to imagine how I’m going to get that king and win. You have to organize everything in your mind.”
Phiona graduated from St. Mbuga Vocational Secondary School in 2016, where she was student president. She is currently in the process of applying to college.
Katende was on set throughout principal photography, serving as both a technical consultant and coach to the actors portraying his original chess students. While they did not have to be strong players, the actors needed to understand why they were making certain moves and why one move could make or break a game.
Oyelowo acknowledges how fortunate he was to have Katende on set every day. Whether he was peppering him with questions, studying his movements or listening to his speech patterns, the actor did everything he could to try and honor Katende with his performance. “Most times when you’re working with a true story the only access to the person you’re portraying is found from reading books or watching footage,” says Oyelowo, “But with this film I was surrounded by all the research I needed.”
It was important to the filmmakers that they show the chess tournaments in their full integrity, which was a fantastic visual challenge from a filmmaking perspective, and they did not want to tread familiar ground visually from game to game. The challenge then became how to convey the emotions that Phiona experiences in each game.
“Chess is inherently a cerebral, static game that does not necessarily translate well in cinema,” cinematographer Sean Bobbitt says. “We are recreating actual games in the film with all the real moves but, at the same time, we go beyond the physical element of the movement of pieces and get into the minds of the people who are playing – the drama in their eyes or posture.”
A perfect example is the opening scene of the film when Phiona is competing in the 2010 Rwabushenyi Chess Championship against the Ugandan women’s champion. Intimidated, Phiona makes a potentially fatal mistake, and Coach Katende, realizing that she has lost her focus due to fear, shouts out to her, “You belong here.”
The camera focuses on her face to capture her obvious distress, and it is a moment that effectively encapsulates the path of Phiona’s journey. A profound universal truth for anyone who has attempted to succeed and operate in a world far beyond his or her own, it speaks to her struggle to find her footing beyond the slum. For a moment, she loses her way, but she recovers her composure and completes one of the most dynamic moves in chess to win the tournament and become the youngest ever champion of Uganda. It is then that she is given the title “Queen of Katwe.”
“Phiona makes one of the greatest moves in chess,” explains Carls, “Where the pawn, the least powerful piece on the board, makes its way to the other side of the board and becomes the queen. That is one of the most powerful messages in the film: that, no matter where you start from, you can still accomplish the greatest of things.”
Oyelowo did not play chess before this film but he now plays it with his wife and kids. “In the world of iPads and cellular phones it is incredibly comforting to be able to just look someone in the eye and be intellectually engaged with the board and these pieces,” says Oyelowo. “It’s a really meditative, wonderfully intellectual pursuit, and it’s brought my kids and me closer.”
“Queen of Katwe” is a vibrant, powerful human story that proves that genius is, indeed, everywhere…we just need to be acknowledge and nurture it. With Robert Katende’s support and guidance and her mother’s love and inspiration, Phiona Mutesi is able to pursue her dreams of becoming a chess champion under the most unlikely of circumstances and in one of the most unlikely places, eventually saving herself and her family.
The strength and humanity of the characters, who persevere against all odds, never giving in to self-pity but attempting to live their lives to the fullest, will leave audiences feeling incredibly humbled, yet empowered. It is a sentiment that director Mira Nair shares as well.
“The triumph of the human spirit is not to weep for what we don’t have but to focus on what we do have and allow that to take us to a place we never imagined possible,” she says.
“I have a daughter and I want her to watch this film and feel like she can do anything because she is worthy of it, because she applies herself, as we see Phiona do,” says David Oyelowo. “My hope is that some young girl in Iowa who wants to be a pilot will watch this film and be inspired to do what she wants to do.”