Lupita Nyong’o is the ultimate in black girl magic, the Hollywood game changer, whose classically Ugandan look and short natural hair challenged stereotypes of what was beautiful – beauty we as women of colour had recognised for years.
Now, she stars in Queen of Katwe, a beautifully shot story of a chess champion courtesy of Disney studios. At a charity screening of the film in London in aid of arts charities Maisha and 32 Degrees East, Afua Adom took some time out with Nyong’o to talk filming in Uganda, staying grounded and what she really wants audiences to take away from the film.
2016 will hereby be known as the year ‘black cinema’ had a bit of renaissance. Films with a focus on the black narrative making big bucks at the box office, with Birth of a Nation and A United Kingdom pulling in audiences the world over. Queen of Katwe is another one we can add to that list. Now, the premise of it may not be to your taste. On paper it’s a film about chess. But in reality it’s so much more than that. It’s the ultimate underdog story, a tale of a girl, Phiona Mutesi, from the slums of Kampala, Uganda who finds a way out through becoming a chess champion. Mix that up with a solid story line, with some gorgeous cinematography and stellar acting from David Oyelowo, Lupita Nyong’o and newcomer Madina Nalwanga and you’ve got a hit. It sounds like a classic indie film but this is a big budget Disney production, but with just the right amount of Disney-fication that it needs. The two bona fide Hollywood stars shine in this piece alongside the 98 brand new child actors carefully selected from Katwe, the slum in Kampala where the story takes place. Most of the film was also shot there for an even more authentic feel.
Queen of Katwe marks Lupita Nyong’o’s return to live action film since her Oscar winning part in12 Years A Slave in 2013. Although she has had big screen turns in voicing characters in The Jungle Book and the most recent Star Wars outing, this is the first time since taking the Academy Award for 12 Years A Slave, that she’s also making an appearance. The fact that this film takes place in east Africa was a big deal for the actress. She knew, almost immediately, that this script was for her.
“When I received the script, [the director] Mira emailed me and said, “I wrote the role of Harriet with you in mind, please say you’ll play her?” I printed out the script and in less than ten pages I was weeping,”
– says Lupita, “I put down the script, emailed Mira and said I must make this film. Because this film was an oasis in the desert, one that has existed in my life for a long time and I didn’t even realize it. I grew up not seeing movies like this at all, about people that looked like me and people from the African continent, from places that I visited or shopped, with people that I recognized, people that had challenges to get through but were vibrant and had urgency and were trying to make something of their lives no matter how little they had.”
The film is directed by the Indian American filmmaker Mira Nair (Monsoon Wedding, Salaam Bombay!), and that alone was enough to get Lupita to make this film. The two have a working relationship going back 10 years and so Lupita knew Mira would challenge her on screen, even thought the part was scripted with Lupita’s nuances and acting ability in mind. “For me this was the project I was looking for and it was one that I didn’t have to go out and start from scratch,” Lupita says. “Here was Mira saying here it is, fully formed, can you do it? So I had no choice but to say yes. You know, she was offering me a challenge like none other that was being offered, she was asking me to play a mother of four, a woman who starts her family at age 15, those are things that don’t come along every day and that’s the kind of challenge that I look for in a role. This is also a woman that has vision herself because this role was like nothing else I had played to date. She trusted me with this real life character, within a story that is passionate and vibrant and positive, and about African people – it was just priceless.”
Lupita fully imbedded herself in Uganda ahead of filming to make sure she got the accent and mannerisms of a young, single, Ugandan mother of four just right. “I got to Uganda three weeks before we started filming with the intention that I would immerse myself in the culture. Coming from Kenya you are exposed to Ugandans a lot, my father went to school in Uganda and he loves Ugandans something fierce, so I always grew up with a knowledge and a regard of Uganda. I had worked for Mira in 2006, so what that means is that you can sometimes be over confident about your relationship to a person. I wanted to go there as a beginner and learn from observation. Luckily for me I was playing a real woman, and this was her recent past so I was able to meet the real Harriet, sit with her and ask her who she was and gauge the woman she was. What I found in Harriet was the core of this character. Harriet is a woman who is extremely grounded, she’s also enigmatic, she has a presence that you cannot deny, and she’s very pragmatic about the way she goes about dealing with situations in her life, she’ll sacrifice everything in her life except her principles for her children. Those were the qualities I wanted to portray and honour in my portrayal of her. She’s a woman who’s dignified and very noble. She’s a woman who is flawed and we see her flaws in this movie. She’s very protective to a fault. She gets to a point where she has to recognize that her wanting to protect her daughter so badly from disappointment is stifling her growth and she has to learn to let her daughter go in order for her to truly show her radical love.”
Lupita Nyong’o, like Phiona Mutesi, had a meteoric rise to fame thanks to her turn in 12 Years… and the golden statuette it earned her. Phiona was the same, she suddenly found herself flying all over the world to play chess and coming back home to her mother’s cooking and roofless house was difficult for her. She had big dreams and had trouble staying grounded in her old life, when her new one was at her fingertips. Lupita counts old friends and family as the keys to keeping her feet on the ground.
“You know I count myself very fortunate to be raised by parents such as mine, she says. “In interviews recently, journalists have asked me whether it was hard for me to be in Katwe, whether it was scary and stuff like that. My reply was my parents made a point of making sure that we were exposed to all spectrums of life. I grew up in a family of privilege, a middle upper class family in Kenya and their philosophy was where you are now may not always be where you remain so they wanted me to have exposure to life in the slums and to recognize that people who live in the slums are not defined by their poverty – there is more to them than just being poor. So I spent time in the slums and I spent time at my friend’s houses with big mansions and sprawling lawns. I think in many ways that’s shaped the person I am because I recognize that in many ways it’s not about how much money is in your pocket – that’s not what gives you dignity. Dignity is self-possession, knowing who you are and knowing you have something to contribute to the world. One way I’ve been able to cope is knowing who my ‘day ones’ are, my family – I’ve kept them very close, the friends I’ve had since I was five years old. There’s a continuum in that. The circumstances of my life may change but my relationships remain the same so I value that. In the story we see how much Phiona needs her mother in order to become the champion she is – she needs that support. Harriet cannot play chess but Harriet can buy the paraffin that allows her daughter to read at night so there’s a part a family plays to make sure a child reaches its full potential, there’s a role that a community plays to make sure that they can support that child in what they do – it doesn’t take one person to make that chance – it takes a village, it takes a community.”
Queen of Katwe is a hit with critics worldwide, with film buffs from The Guardian, to Empire, to the New York Times, calling it “eye-popping”, “quietly radical” and with “zest and intelligence”. The film has an A+ cinema score in America which means it scores top marks from all demographics who have seen it in the test runs – it’s only the 4th time in history that has happened since scoring began. In the same way it takes a village to raise a child and a community to make a chess champion, it’s going to take our community to make this film, and films that tell our own stories a success – something Lupita is very passionate about. “Recently I was back in east Africa and I met with a friend of mine,” she says. “She asked when is the film coming out in Kenya and I didn’t have the dates in mind, but even before I could respond she said, “oh don’t worry I’ll watch it on a bootleg DVD from the street”. I was surprised that she would say that and to me especially – this is my bread and butter! But what I realized that in saying that she was not aware that she was sending us the complete opposite message that she intended. There’s a lot of ignorance around piracy and how it hurts the industry, so I feel compelled to remind everyone that we have a role to play in ensuring these kinds of stories get told. This story is made for a global market but the first people that need to support it are the people from the African continent, from Uganda. People of colour – if we want to see ourselves front and centre of our own narrative then we have to support the films that put us front and centre of our own narrative. I feel there’s an education that we can all participate in, especially on social media, tell people what the power of buying that movie ticket is – it’s saying I want to see more of myself on screen and you can show that by purchasing that ticket.”
My time is almost up but before Nyong’o disappears back on the promo tour for Katwe, I want to know what she wants audiences from Kidbrooke to Kampala, Accra to Aberdeen, to take away from the flick. She pauses and says, “There’s this line I loved in the film that says, “In chess the small one can become the big one”. That is something that I hope we can all hold really close to our hearts, that it’s not about where you come from, it’s about where you’re going. I hope that children that watch it feel invigorated about the thing they’re passionate about and go after it. I hope adults watch it and feel that they can pursue new dreams or maybe old dreams they forgot about but also play a role in nurturing the genius of generations following.”
This film is the ultimate in black girl magic – it’s so much more than a story of a girl that becomes a chess champion. It’s the tale of life in the slums, of a strong woman trying to keep her family afloat, of a teacher that never gives up, of a community that never stops raising a child and a child who is both learning to manage, grow and fulfill her potential. Take the kids, take your other half, take your bestie – whatever you do, just make sure you see this film on the big screen in its full glory. You can thank me later.
Image credits: www.123rf.com