Queen of Katwe is a new biographical sports drama film, directed by Mira Nair from a screenplay by William Wheeler. It stars David Oyelowo, Lupita Nyong’o, and Madina Nalwanga. The film depicts the life of Phiona Mutesi, a Ugandan chess player from Katwe who becomes a Woman Candidate Master after her performances at World Chess Olympiads. The film, produced by Walt Disney Pictures and ESPN Films has garnered praise for its non-Caucasian cast, setting, and subject matter; elements regarded as rare for a major American studio release.
In 2012, Tim Crothers published a book for ESPN titled, The Queen of Katwe: A Story of Life, Chess, and One Extraordinary Girl’s Dream of Becoming a Grandmaster, which chronicled Phiona Mutesi’s life. Walt Disney Pictures optioned the rights to the book that same year.
Tendo Nagenda, Walt Disney Studios’ senior creative executive and of Ugandan descent, developed the project into production. Nagenda went to visit Mira Nair at her Ugandan home to tell the story of Mutesi. Nair was captivated by the story, stating, “I have always been surrounded by these local stories but hadn’t done anything in Uganda since 1991. I love any story about people who make something from what appears to be nothing.”
David Oyelowo and Lupita Nyong’o were Nair’s first choices for their roles. Nyong’o said her decision to play Harriet occurred after only reading the script’s first ten pages, declaring “It was the first time I felt really awakened by a script and super challenged.”
Oyelowo immediately accepted the role, viewing the film as a “subversive work” in regards to the lack of diversity in contemporary American cinema. Casting Phiona Mutesi was the most difficult process. The casting search for Phiona took from July to December 2014, auditioning nearly 700 girls. The casting director found then 15-year-old Ugandan dancer Madina Nalwanga in a community dance class and the newcomer was cast as Phiona.
The film was shot entirely in the slums of Katwe in Kampala, Uganda and Johannesburg, South Africa, beginning in April 2015. The streets were filled with over one-hundred local Ugandans taking in smaller parts of the film, where eighty of them didn’t have experience with cameras. Nair worked with the children by setting up an acting boot camp to help prepare them for their roles.
Alicia Keys wrote and recorded the song “Back to Life” for the film. Composer Alex Heffes composed the score.
On the aggregate site Rotten Tomatoes, the film has an approval rating of 90%, based on 82 reviews, with an average rating of 7.1/10. The site’s consensus reads, “Queen of Katwe is a feel-good movie of uncommon smarts and passion, and Lupita Nyong’o’s outstanding performance helps elevate the film past its cliches.” On Metacritic, the film has a normalized rating of 73 out of 100, based on 30 critics, indicating “generally favorable reviews.” The 124 minute film is rated PG for thematic elements, an accident scene and some suggestive material. See it now in theaters everywhere.