“I printed out a copy of the script and in less than 10 minutes I was weeping because I was just so moved that this story was being told,” Nyong’o said about her introduction to "Queen of Katwe." The Oscar-winning actress met with Townhall and a few other outlets in Washington, D.C. earlier this month to chat about the movie, in theaters everywhere this Friday.
Nyong’o aptly described the film as a story about “a young girl from an unlikely place with an unlikely dream.” That young girl is Phiona Mutesi, her unlikely place is Katwe, Uganda, and her unlikely dream is to be one of her country’s best chess players.
Phiona miraculously achieves this goal thanks to a coach who believes in her and helps her hone her talent. She also got a little help from her mom.
Phiona’s mother Harriet, whom Nyong’o plays in the film, is a “layered woman,” the actress explains. Nyong’o contrasted her own childhood with that of Harriet’s. When she was younger, Nyong’o’s parents had her create “dream charts” every year to shoot toward short-term, mid-term and long-term goals. It was “a tapestry to represent the things they wanted to achieve.”
Harriet, however, is “a woman who is suspicious of dreaming.”
Harriet has a right to have doubts. She grew up in a broken home, had no education, lost her first husband to AIDS and lost one of her five children, while also battling bouts of homelessness.
Because her dreams have never been realized, she fears letting Phiona hope for more. Along comes Coach Robert Katende who tries to convince her to let her daughter play chess. His persistence eventually pays off.
Nyong’o asked Harriet why she changed her mind and let Phiona learn chess with Katende. The mother was incredibly honest.
“He could feed her,” she said. “He could give her a cup of porridge every day and I couldn’t.”
“She wasn’t about stagnating her children, she was trying to keep them safe,” Nyong’o explained. “That was her first point of surrender.”
Nyong’o indicated that Phiona has inherited a lot of her mother’s determined character.
“Phiona is an extremely practical person like her mother and she was in school so she did not come to set,” Nyong’o shared. “I love that about Phiona, she is so focused. Here we are, we’re celebrating her past and she has her whole future ahead of her and she is determined to succeed.”
Nyong’o said she could not play the role of Harriet without finding a newfound respect for her parents.
“I did spend a lot of time on the phone with my mom and asking her things like, how did you let me leave the house ever? It’s just unbelievable and I have a deep respect now for parents and I apologize for all the stress I gave her growing up.”
“The Queen of Katwe” is Nyong’o’s third time working with Director Mira Nair, whom the actress says she “trusts deeply.”
Filming, Nyong'o said, was such a “time of abandon.” She was especially fond of the homecoming scene, when all of Katwe is welcoming Phiona back with a trophy.
“This one day we’re shooting and so celebratory,” she recalled. “As we shoot it, the rest of the inhabitants just come onboard and they join in the festivities. They don’t even fully understand what is happening but there is just so much joy and celebration in the air. There was trumpets and drums and I remembered this is not just us filming a fictional celebration of this Phiona winning a trophy, but it’s us celebrating the very making of this film. I remember feeling that very deeply. It’s quite a feat this has been made.”
She went into more detail.
“What I love about this film is Africans taking care of themselves,” Nyong’o explained. “There’s no white savior that comes in this film. This is about a girl who has a fighting spirit and a mentor who sees that in her and guides her onto a platform where she can realize her best potential. I think that is the message that is more crucial for me. Genius resides in all sorts of places. It takes mentorship, it takes unity to nurture that genius.”
“Where you are born does not necessarily mean that you belong there,” she concluded. “You belong where you believe you belong.”
The game of chess, she said, is a metaphor for life. “It teaches you strategy, it teaches you the value of knowing where you are, where you want to get to and what obstacles might be in your way that you might need to navigate in order to get there. That’s a mentality that unfortunately people in poverty are not often exposed to.”
Phiona’s uplifting, heartwarming story was a joy to tell, Nyong’o said.
“It was something I hadn’t seen come across my desk before.”
Click here for Townhall's review of the film.