Despite living in Kampala, Uganda for 25 years, starting a film school in the African country, and becoming an integral part of the community, director Mira Nair (The Namesake) had never hear the story of unlikely chess prodigy Phiona Mutesi, the girl from the slums of Katwe who with help from her devoted mentor became a Master chess player.
It wasn’t until Disney executive Tendo Nagenda came to visit Nair in her adopted home to tell her the story of Mutesi that she discovered this girl, who was studying at a boarding school just 15 miles from Nair’s home. “I was immediately captivated,” says Nair. “I love true stories. I love stories of young girls. It proves genius is everywhere.”
From that conversation, Nair partnered with screenwriter William Wheeler (The Reluctant Fundamentalist) and the two created Queen of Katwe, which will open nationwide on Sept. 30.
Nair cast a slew of local Ugandan children who had never acted before. That would have been a challenge for any director, but Nair was able to balance their inexperience with two classically-trained actors, who also happened to be two of the most well-known in the world: Lupita Nyong’o and David Oyelowo, who play Mutesi’s mother and mentor, respectively.
“To make a big Hollywood movie, one needs movie stars,” says Nair. “And it’s so beautiful to write it and cast it with somebody within the continent who can do justice to what we are trying to do. Both Lupita and David are from the soil, very much of this earth. It’s very meaningful.”
So much of the plot’s action rests on the shoulders of newcomer Madina Nalwanga, who stuns as the soulful Phiona. Take a look at the clip above when this young girl discovers her chess abilities for the first time.
Queen of Katwe will have its world premiere at next weekend’s Toronto International Film Festival before the Disney film opens nationwide.