It’s wonderful to see Disney taking a chance on an film set in Uganda, played by an all-black cast, centring on the world of competitive chess – not a pitch to get Hollywood accountants’ pulses racing. Queen of Katwe boasts fine performances from David Oyewolo, as the chess coach who inspires slum kids to dizzy heights, and from Lupita Nyong’o as the young prodigy’s mother. The kids are very watchable, if not always wholly intelligible, and Mira Nair has gone for a realistic style, working with “real” rather than stage-school kids, which suits the true story subject matter but must have taken Disney out of their comfort zone – especially once Lupita Nyong’o’s eldest daughter falls in love with a pimp.
“The line about ‘selling yourself’ was a bit strong for Disney,” Mira Nair confirmed at a recent Q&A, which the two stars also attended. “But after a preview got a 99% approval rating, they let me put the line back in.”
Apart from that episode, the portrayal of family life in the film is a strong and loving one – particularly between Oyelowo’s character and his wife. It’s a big contrast with the other Uganda-set movie Oyelowo was in: King of Scotland, about the crazed, murderous dictator Idi Amin.
“That was a great film,” says Oyelowo, “but gosh, I remember thinking, as a person of African descent myself, that I would love to show a different side. I cannot tell you the significance of seeing [in Queen of Katwe] a black man who loves his wife, and has kids and it’s fine. These are images we don’t get to see! The healing balm that the film is cannot be underestimated.”
He worried at first that the teacher he plays was too good. “When I read the script I was slightly terrified. We as actors tend to gravitate to someone who is flawed, edgy, who grapples with the light and dark. But when I met him, I discovered how much it was costing him – he was a bright man, not just intellectually, but also very good at playing football, and he put all these things to one side for the sake of the kids. He doesn’t think twice. See a need, meet a need. It’s seeing that that gave me the edge.”
Nyong’o says that she was less than ten pages into reading the script when she decided to commit to the film. She subsequently met the chess prodigy’s ballsy single mother, whom she plays in the film, and says that “What I find in her presence is that she’s very grounded, very practical, but there’s stuff going on behind her eyes that you’ll never know. The one thing she wanted to do is to keep her family together. She’s suspicious of dreams [she at first forbids her daughter to join in with the chess classes], and her journey is to discover that love is acting out of radical hope, not fear.”
The result is a feelgood movie full of lovely moments, many of which ring wonderfully true for the simple reason that they are true. David Oyelowo’s declaration of love to his screen wife was taken from his real-life marriage proposal. Or when the slum kids attend their first big chess tournament, held at a posh school, they leave the unfamiliar beds empty and curl up together at night on the floor. “That was all true,” says Mira Nair. “Even the chess games in the film were entirely accurate, and exactly as Phiona played them.”
Queen of Katwe is in UK cinemas from today