The True Story Behind Queen of Katwe

By  · Published on September 22nd, 2016

A chess champ’s dreams are a real-life Disney fairy tale.

In a year of harsh racist rhetoric, powerlessness, brutal treatment, and protests, it’s both refreshing and (unfortunately) surprising that a major studio is releasing a film set in Africa, starring Africans and actors of African descent, and being centered around these characters. One reason Disney is releasing Queen of Katwe, starring Lupita Nyong’o and David Oyelowo, is that its Ugandan chess prodigy really exists. In fact, she’s in her final year of secondary school in Katwe, considering going to Harvard.

Phiona Mutesi dreams of becoming a grandmaster in chess, though since no Ugandan coach is qualified to train her to a higher level, her studies have been stifled barring a move to the U.S. At 20, Phiona hasn’t seen the movie based on her life because, well, she already knows the story. A brief documentary about Phiona was made in 2011 by the non-profit organization Silent Images, which you can see below:

In 2005, a nine-year-old Phiona Mutesi (played in the film by newcomer Madina Nalwanga) bumped into Robert Katende (David Oyelowo) while searching for food. Katende, a missionary from Kampala whose plan for the Ugandan slum he found himself in was community empowerment through chess, started slowly.

First, he had to figure out what to call the game – there’s no word for chess in their native language.

A short documentary titled A Fork A Spoon and A Knight by director Mira Nair focuses more pointedly on the coach, which you can watch here:

Katende has instituted chess programs in his home of Kampala but also in Phiona’s Katwe and Gulu (a northern segment of Uganda which suffered the brunt of the destruction wrought by Joseph Kony and the LRA rebels) and taught any children that would listen.

Over the years, only girl stood out: Phiona.

At eleven, Phiona was junior chess champion of Uganda – then the national champion. Now a Woman Candidate Master, the first step to becoming a chess Grandmaster, Phiona’s international competitions continue to be juxtaposed with the conditions of her home. She transitions between packing for a chess meet in Russia and sitting cross-legged on dirt floors beating both girls and boys, young and old, at the game that allows her to abandon fear.

And she’s had more to fear than most.

Her father died of AIDS when she was three, while her family’s financial problems forced her out of school and her mother into the slums. Phiona, who was hanging laundry with her mother (Lupita Nyong’o’s role in the film) in 2011, is now financially stable and free to pursue her dreams thanks to her dedication and talent.

When Tim Crothers wrote about the consummate underdog for ESPN in his article which became The Queen of Katwe: A Story of Life, Chess, and One Extraordinary Girl’s Dream of Becoming a Grandmaster, he was a lonely voice focusing on an authentic story.

Then Crothers’ article developed into a book, which found its way to Walt Disney executive Tendo Nagenda, also of Ugandan descent. Nagenda was swept away by the Cinderella story from his homeland and the purity of its narrative. It was a must-have. The rights were purchased and production began.

They shot primarily in Katwe, vying to bring an authenticity to a story whose truth is one of its most powerful draws. The entire film was shot in Africa, with local extras who’d not only never acted but some of whom had never seen a camera. Nagenda has focused on the idea that Phiona did not have anyone from the West come to her rescue, but that she lifted herself with the support of her community.

In a hostile climate whose racial tension constantly threatens to (and does) explode, Disney’s understated dedication to an uplifting, all-black true life tale is both admirable and repeatable. There are wonderful stories from all races, cultures, and orientations – we just have to listen for them.

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Jacob Oller writes everywhere (Vanity Fair, The Guardian, Playboy, FSR, Paste, etc.) about everything that matters (film, TV, video games, memes, life).