UGANDAN CHESS CHAMPION’S STORY BROUGHT TO LIFE IN A DISNEY MOVIE


By Paul Ndiho

Phiona Mutesi is a Ugandan girl, who until recently was relatively unknown at home.  Now, her life’s story is being told in an inspirational film by Walt Disney called “Queen of Katwe.”  The movie chronicles her outstanding ability to play chess and her rise to become a world chess champion, without any formal education.

“Queen of Katwe” starring Hollywood Superstars Lupita Nyong’o and David Oyelowo is about Phiona Mutesi a Ugandan girl who hails from one of Uganda’s biggest slums, “Katwe.”  The uplifting drama had its world premiere last weekend at the Toronto International Film Festival.

The film follows Mutesi who is living with her mother played by Lupita Nyong’o and siblings in poverty, in the Katwe slum, until she stumbles across a chess class run by charity worker, Robert Katende, played by David Oyelowo.

“It’s a life-affirming African story and as someone of African descent, we don’t see enough of that I believe in cinema, in the press as well so I’m very proud to see a story like this made by Disney as well.”

Despite repeated hardships, Phiona’s ability to play chees is amazing– and her journey to international stardom is amazing. Her big break appears to have happened when Tim Crothers, a renowned author and former writer for the magazine, Sports Illustrated, wrote a book titled “The Queen of Katwe” describing Phiona’s life. Lupita Nyong’o plays Phiona’s fiercely protective mother Nakku and at the premiere she explained how she felt the pressures of motherhood for the first time.

“I learned a lot about motherhood. I’m not a mother and yet I had to play a mother and I learned what it takes…. a bit about what it takes to provide for your family and to be concerned about so many people’s well-being. It’s almost like your heart is dislocated and running around and just feeling the fear, inhabiting the fear of a mother letting her chicks out every day to survive.”

Vanity Fair’s Mira Nair directed the film and brought her own knowledge of Katwe to the production.

“When I heard the story of Phiona and met her, it’s pretty inspiring and I thought of used it to use the locations I loved, the music, seeing the country from within, feeling the dignity and the complete joy even during the best of struggles and it was to make a story without sentiment but with truth and truth is very funny and stylish and sassy in Katwe,”

Mutesi has travelled the world to play chess and she’s met her hero, chess grandmaster Gary Kasparov. And she feels that being featured in a Disney inspirational movie is incredible. Now children from across Uganda are taking up chess like never before.  Voice of America was one first international media organizations to bring Phiona Mutesi’s story to light nearly four years ago.

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