Africa, in general, has its fair share of underdogs who rise up above tough circumstances to do extraordinary things and Phiona Mutesi is one of them. Her living situation was dire, she smelled so badly as a survival tactic to avoid the possibility of getting molested in the street. Today her story will be gracing the silver screen.
Queen of Katwe is a 2016 biographical sports drama film that 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 stars David Oyelowo, Lupita Nyong’o, and Madina Nalwanga.
The film is produced by Walt Disney Pictures and ESPN Films, and will be released in North America today, September 23, 2016, and will be followed by a general theatrical release on September 30.
Phiona Mutesi’s story would not have gotten the attention it deserved if it were not for Tim Crothers, a former Sports Illustrated senior writer who wrote Mutesi’s story in an article that appeared in ESPN Magazine’s Jan. 10, 2011 edition.
When Tim Crothers first met Phiona Mutesi in Uganda, she was very shy and not comfortable with talking about herself. It took a game of chess between Crothers and Mutesi in Siberia, where the 2010 Chess Olympiad was taking place, to break the ice.
“To be African is to be an underdog in the world. To be Ugandan is to be an underdog in Africa. To be from Katwe is to be an underdog in Uganda. And finally, to be female is to be an underdog in Katwe.”
Today, what was once an article of an underdog in the slums of Uganda has morphed into a book and a movie. Proceeds from both mediums have changed Phiona’s life for the better as has the lives of those who draw inspiration from her story.
Interview with Tim Crothers
Belle Niba: What inspired you to write a story about Phiona Mutesi?
Tim Crothers: When I first heard the story of a 9-year-old girl who was basically homeless in a Ugandan slum, couldn’t read or write and was essentially homeless suddenly stumbling upon the game of chess, a game so foreign there is no word for it in her native language, and four years later becoming an international chess champion I couldn’t wait to find out more details. I love stories of underdogs and Phiona is the ultimate underdog.
Belle Niba: Why is the book titled “Queen of Katwe”?
Tim Crothers: It’s a play on the game of chess and the fact that the queen is the most powerful piece on the board, but I had no idea when I wrote the book that Phiona would actually become an important female voice in Katwe and all over Uganda, really. So she really could become the queen of Katwe.
Belle Niba: Did Mutesi’s story change you?
Tim Crothers: Of course. Just having the opportunity to travel to Africa for the first time changed me. The experience has redefined the meaning of the word “hope” in my eyes. Phiona had no reason for hope, yet she never gave up, never surrendered despite her desperate circumstances and I love to visit Katwe because of the hope I always see there despite the trying circumstances.
Belle Niba: With the movie coming out this week, what will you like the audience to take away from this story?
Tim Crothers: I hope audiences will see that you should always dream big. Most girls in Katwe aren’t encouraged to dream, but Phiona was given a chance to dream by Robert Katende and his chess program and once she was allowed to have a dream, she has pursued it relentlessly even when it seemed impossible. All of us should pursue our own dreams with that level of hope and faith
Belle Niba: Did you approach Disney or did Disney approach you on this story?
Tim Crothers: Disney approached me to option the story for the film. At first, I wasn’t sure that it would ever be made into a film, but Disney obviously saw the power of Phiona’s story and transformed my book to the screen expertly and beautifully.
Belle Niba: How will you describe the transformation you now see in Phiona as compared to your first encounter?
It is hard to believe that Phiona is the same girl that I first met in 2010. At that time she was a shy 14-year-old who wouldn’t look me in the eye and answered my questions with one word whenever possible. At that time she had only left the Kampala area once in her life. Now she is a poised, confident, curious 20-year-old who asks me more questions than I ask her. She has traveled to Russia, Norway, Turkey, Dubai, Azerbaijan, all over Africa and several times to the U.S. All of that travel has helped her mature very quickly.
Queen of Katwe comes out in select theaters today. The authenticity of the story on the big screen was made possible by Disney’s senior executive, Tendo Nagenda, whose father is Ugandan. After Disney optioned the rights to do the movie, it was Nagenda who developed the project into production working with Director Mira Nair. This is Disney’s first feature film that is not about animals in the jungle.
‘Queen of Katwe’ Movie Trailer
Africa has its fair share of strife but with it comes stories that will inspire, stories to be celebrated, people to be revered. This is one such story and it is our hope that it will encourage other stories to be told, stories that are uplifting and shift from the typical themes that often shape how the continent is perceived. While the responsibility remains primarily ours as Africans, it is important to also celebrate those who trouble themselves to tell our stories authentically, showing how we as Africans pull ourselves up by the bootstrap and make the most of our circumstances.
– Belle Niba
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