Underdog stories are my lifeblood. Hence my obsession with sports movies even though I have little to no patience for actual sports. This fall, Disney is releasing a movie that has all the determination and triumph of a Mighty Ducks joint, minus the balls, pucks, and various other sport-y implements. Queen Of Katwe will release wide Sept. 30 after playing in limited theaters for the last week. Helmed by Monsoon Wedding and Vanity Fair director Mira Nair, this heartwarming biopic is based on the life of real Ugandan chess champion, Phiona Mutesi. Oscar winner Lupita Nyong'o plays Phiona's mother Harriet in the film. David Oyelowo of Selma plays her her chess teacher, Robert Katende. Phiona herself is played by newcomer Madina Nalwanga. Nalwanga is a dancer, and Queen Of Katwe is her first acting role. What does the real Phiona Mutesi think of the movie and the people who made it?
To put things in context, I'll first tell you that Queen Of Katwe takes place in the relatively recent past, so Mutesi is only in her early 20s today. She began playing when she was just a child and became a Woman Candidate Master in the game of chess in 2012 after an impressive showing at the Chess Olympiad. Many people became aware of her story that year with the publication of The Queen of Katwe: A Story of Life, Chess, and One Extraordinary Girl's Dream of Becoming a Grandmaster, a non-fiction account of her life so far by sports journalist and writer Tim Crothers. The book caught the attention of Disney and the rest is potential feel-good movie history.
The Ugandan village where Mutesi learned the difference between a rook and a queen wasn't recreated on a Hollywood soundstage. It was filmed on location. The director told The Los Angeles Times that her approach always includes creating a complete sense of place. “I feel like my work is to make this world," Nair said. And being true to her character's surroundings were especially crucial to Nair here. Most movies that take place on Mutesi's home continent are "just about other people’s lives set against the backdrop of Africa," Nair said. "And I got sick of all that, and thought, 'if we don’t tell our own stories, really, no one will tell them.” Telling this story required having Mutesi and her teacher be involved with the production. Mutesi even taught Nair the game that's opened so many doors for her.
Though chess has brought her acclaim and taken her around the world, Mutesi was still surprised that her story was being adapted for the screen. In an interview with MSN, she said, "That's when I couldn't believe it, seriously. I couldn't believe that they were portraying a movie about my life." She and Katende had nothing but warm admiration for the cast and crew. "I met them before they started shooting, and really, they were so friendly," Mutesi said.
Queen Of Katwe also gets Mutesi's seal of approval for accuracy. That's a true movie," the chess prodigy told MovieTickets.com. "I felt like, it's just my life. It's really my life."
Image: Walt Disney Studios