Disney’s ‘Queen of Katwe’ celebrates opportunity in unlikely places

Actors David Oyelowo, Martin Kabanza, Madina Nalwanga, Lupita Nyong'o and director Mira Nair arrive at the world premiere of Disney’s "Queen of Katwe" at Roy Thompson Hall as part of the 2016 Toronto Film Festival. Photo courtesy Sly Fox

Update, [2:48 p.m.], [Oct. 3, 2016]: [The location of the interview was added to the story.]

“Queen of Katwe,” Disney’s latest motion picture, tells the powerful true story of a girl from rural Uganda whose world is changed when she discovers her hidden talent for chess.

In the film, Phiona Mutesi (Madina Nalwanga) finds herself at home in a small chess club in the impoverished suburb of Katwe run by Robert Katende (David Oyelowo). Katende quickly notices Phiona’s potential as a chess player and sees an opportunity to give her the education her mother had always wanted for her.

The film explores themes of family, perseverance and love. Oyelowo said he believes these are all crucial to the film’s message.

“We can watch the film and see what is amazing, what is exemplary, what is inspiring, and learn,” Oyelowo said while speaking to journalists at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel in Brickell to promote the film.

“Queen of Katwe” was shot almost entirely on location in Katwe, Uganda. Oyelowo said that seeing the poverty and disease first-hand moved him.

“One of the most inspiring things about shooting this film in Katwe, Uganda is … the amount of joy they still manage to have in the midst of all this,” Oyelowo said, referring to the local children and their living conditions. “Hopefully that can inspire anyone, anywhere.”

Oyelowo’s character is a coach at a small chess academy in the film. He owes a large part of his success to his ability to connect with his pupils on a personal level.

“Even though he is a grown up … he can understand who they are and what they need at a given moment,” Oyelowo said.

Like Katende, Oyelowo had a great relationship with the kids in the film.

“I really enjoyed any scene with the kids, because I learned so much from being around them,” Oyelowo said.

While shooting, he took the kids to a theater in Kampala. It was the first time many of them had seen a film, including Nalwanga.

While Nalwanga is new to the big screen, her co-star Lupita Nyong’o, who plays Phiona’s mother, is a veteran. Nyong’o won the 2012 Oscar for Best Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role for “12 Years a Slave.” More recently, she’s voiced the role of Raksha, the mother wolf, in Disney’s “The Jungle Book.”

Oyelowo is also well-known to the big screen, primarily for his award-winning role as Martin Luther King Jr. in the biographical drama “Selma.”

The film was directed by Mira Nair, an accomplished director, writer, producer and activist known for her films “The Reluctant Fundamentalist” and “Words with Gods,” both of which challenge traditional worldviews and break stereotypical boundaries.

Filming “Queen of Katwe” wasn’t Nair’s first time in Uganda. She established a nonprofit filmmaker’s laboratory in Kampala, Uganda in 2005, where young African directors have been trained to tell their stories through film.

A chess academy is currently being built in Katwe, and Disney is “keeping a close eye” on the education of the children there, particularly the ones who were in the film, according to Oyelowo.

“Queen of Katwe” will be playing in theaters everywhere on Sept. 30.