For many Ugandans that make Hollywood their own business, Queen of Katwe is that one movie they are indeed looking out for; for starters, it’s a real life adoption of Phiona Mutesi, a teenager from Katwe that took the chess world by storm.
During the just concluded Amakula International Film Festival, the director of Queen of Katwe, Mira Nair held a discussion with film enthusiasts and film makers, it was an interactive session that was meant to inspire as well as uplift anyone with a dream of telling stories using the lens.
Citing the films she has worked on like Mississippi Masala, Monsoon Wedding and Kamasutra among others, she noted that the best way she worked on many of the projects successfully was because she organized and sorted out all that had to be sorted out in time.
Born in Rourkela, Odisha in India, Nair always had an eye for storytelling, in fact she used drive to the city to listen to a story teller; “The idea of bringing people together without props or cameras but just your story was fascinating.”
However, the most exciting part, which was totally a surprise of the interaction, was when Nair said, she had something for us and those were fifteen minutes in form of a scene from Queen of Katwe staring Madina Nalwanga, Lupita Nyongo and David Oyelowo.
The scene starts off in the market where an annoyed Phiona (Nalwanga) seated alongside Harriet Mutesi (Nyongo) are watching her brother dance to a Luganda rap song.
In walks a rather descent but lousily dressed Robert Katende (Oyelowo), the director of Sports Outreach Kampala and Phiona and the brother’s chess coach.
He was pleading with Harriet to let Phiona and her young brother go for a national chess tournament that was taking place at Kings College Buddo.
It sets us to a number of beautiful shots including one of Katende bargaining with Harriet to let him take the kids particularly set with in piles of wood and a view of Lake Victoria in the background.
It is surprising how Luganda adlibs easily go off the two’s tongues especially with Oyelowo’s Katende using our normal begging tone and terms like ‘nawe’ or ‘nyabo’ in his speech.
Lupita too had mastered Harriet and her few years at Maisha Film Lab, owned by Nair herself could have paid off as she spoke with that uncertainty many of us possess while speaking a foreign language.
Nair says that the market was met to be done in the Katwe market but opted for Ggaba since it had beautiful scenery of the lake and as well provided the artistic feel she was looking for.
In fact, the wood pilled was supposed to be bought by different city wood distributors but noting that it would create a great shot, the production had to buy and make sure it stays put for the two days the scene was shot.
But the real star of the scene could have been the two year old baby, one Ivan Jacob. According to Nair, he was cast because he was seen crossing the road by himself; but more to that – “I cast him because he looked like the brother of Phiona and easily looked like he could be Lupita’s child.”
In fact before production, Lupita used to visit him over the weekends and that’s how he got used to his onscreen family.
“Ivan obviously had no lines in the film but he kept creating his own lines and he brought the house down with them,” she says.
In this scene, when Katende walks off with Phiona and her brother, Ivan’s character looks at them leaving and mummers; “ehh bandesewo.”
Unfortunately, during production, Ivan’s mother ran off to Dubai and now leaves with Nalwanga her onscreen sister.
According to Tim Crothers’ book, Queen of Katwe, which the film heavily adopts, it had been hard for Katende to secure a slot for the Outreach children to participate in the tournament since many officials at Kings College thought slum kids would come with a lot of issues – especially diseases.
It plays out, at least in the fifteen minutes especially when a chess teacher portrayed by former news anchor Peter Odeke, informs those around that they had underprivileged children in their midst.
The attitude in this scene is one many Ugandans that have been to school easily associate with, either as the victim of such treatment or the one dishing the treatment – it was like those kind of schools competition where kids from high end schools come to deliberately under look their less privileged colleagues.
After the screening, much as they were only fifteen minutes, the director got a standing ovation, as some people were fighting back tears.
She promised they will have a special screening in Uganda when the film premiers in September.
And following the backlash of the so white Oscars, Entertainment Weekly, E! Online, Independent UK, LA Times and many other publications have already tipped Queen of Katwe to be a strong contender at the 2017 Oscars.
In fact, even Disney is positioning it as an Academy possible shot since it has each and everything Hollywood has been criticized for ignoring in the past; they have a female director from India, making her a person of color, a three black people in the lead roles, Nalwanga, Nyongo and Oyelowo.
In fact, among the individual awards that maybe up for grabs next year, the Independent UK tips Nalwanga as the new comer to watch citing that she may easily emulate her onscreen mother Nyongo who too won an Oscar as a newcomer.