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Queen of Katwe a refreshingly positive African story

All hail Queen of Katwe: a Disney film with an entirely black cast that’s making a quiet, powerful statement on how to tell compelling stories without resorting to stereotypes. 

The tale of real-life chess prodigy Phiona Mutesi, whose natural gift and tenacity lifted her out of the slums to become Uganda’s first female chess grand master, arrives in the midst of Hollywood’s attempt to make good on its promise to reflect more diversity in films. 

The subject matter had an emotional connection for one of its stars, Oscar-winner Lupita Nyong’o, who plays Mutesi’s mother Harriet, a young widow with four children.

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Actress Lupita Nyong’o, right, embraces newcomer Madina Nalwanga in a scene from Disney’s Queen of Katwe, based on the true story of Ugandan chess prodigy Phiona Mutesi. (Edward Echwalu/Disney/Associated Press)

“The African story on global platforms has been overlooked, and I’m from there, so I know that there is a lot of stuff going on,” Nyong’o, whose parents are Kenyan, told CBC News.

Nyong’o praised filmmaker Mira Nair (Monsoon Wedding) and screenwriter William Wheeler for their vision. 

“They are humanizing people that I grew up with, on the big screen,” she said earlier this month during an interview at the Toronto International Film Festival, where the movie had its world premiere.

Finding Phiona

The central role is played by newcomer Madina Nalwanga. Director Mira Nair, who has lived in Uganda for nearly three decades, found the film’s star in a girl with no previous acting experience, but who shared Mutesi’s life story. 

Nalwanga also grew up in the slums and found her way out by joining a dance academy.

Phiona Mutesi and Robert Katende on seeing their story told in Queen of Katwe1:11

But what convinced her the young performer was up to the role?

“Meeting her and seeing that kind of grace she had in her body and the focus in her mind when she applies it to something, and the wisdom of living the life Phiona has,” Nair said.

“The way chess was the ticket for Phiona, dance has been the ticket for Madina.”

A different kind of Ugandan story

David Oyelowo, who plays Phiona’s coach and mentor Robert Katende, said he loved being part of a story of such strong women.

“That’s something you don’t often see in movies, certainly not in a film that’s set in Africa,” Oyelowo said.

“A young African girl at the centre of a movie made by Disney.” 

FILMFESTIVAL-TIFF/QUEENOFKATWE

Lupita Nyong’o, left, director Mira Nair and David Oyelowo pose at the Toronto International Film Festival premiere of Queen of Katwe on Sept. 10. (Mark Blinch/Reuters)

Oyelowo, whose parents are Nigerian, also felt he had to do his part to show people that not all stories out of Africa are of misery and violence.

‘This is the balance! Yes, you have [dictator Idi Amin] coming out of Uganda, but you also have Phiona Mutesi coming out of Uganda.’
– David Oyelowo

He counts himself responsible for part of this perception: 10 years ago, he had a role in The Last King of Scotland, about Uganda’s brutal dictator Idi Amin.

“It was a great movie I think, but it’s about the darker side of African life,” Oyelowo said of the that film.

“So when this came along 10 years later, it was like, ‘OK, this is the balance! Yes, you have a dictator coming out of Uganda but you also have Phiona Mutesi coming out of Uganda.'”

Queen of Katwe opens in theatres Friday.