Uganda's reigning chess prodigy graced the red carpet outside the El Capitan Theatre in Hollywood on Tuesday evening to celebrate the premiere of Disney's new drama, Queen of Katwe.
Twenty-year-old Phiona Mutesi is the film's real-life heroine, who, as a young woman from a Kampala slum called Katwe, becomes an international chess champion under the guidance of a local missionary.
Tim Crothers, the Chapel Hill-based sports journalist who first discovered Phiona's story and later penned the award-winning ESPN article (and full-length biographical novel) on which this film is based, spent an extended period of time in Uganda himself while conducting research for his book. "Mira does an incredible job of bringing the pulse of the true Katwe to the screen," said Crothers. "So, I think the movie is essentially a love letter to Uganda from [the director]. And it really comes through."
Read more: 'Queen of Katwe': Film Review | TIFF 2016
Shot entirely on location in Kampala, the film predominantly features African actors, including 16-year-old Katwe native Madina Nalwanga, the quietly brilliant newcomer who plays Phiona. Even the movie's headlining cast - critically acclaimed actors Lupita Nyong'o and David Oyelowo - originally hail from Kenya and Nigeria, respectively.
"I really love the fact that the biggest studio in the world decided that they wanted to expand their sense of what a Disney movie is," said William Wheeler, who wrote the film's screenplay. "I'm proud of that."
Nyong'o and Oyelowo seemed humbled by the movie and Phiona's story. "This is the kind of film the likes of which doesn't normally get this kind of fanfare," said Oyelowo.
When Nyong'o, who plays Phiona's protective, tough-as-nails mother, spoke of her character and of the weight of this story, her connection to its valor and understanding of its impact shone through. "At the end of the day, it doesn't take big people to make big things happen," Nyong'o said. "It takes regular folk. And Phiona is one of those people."
Director Mira Nair said she was committed to doing this story justice. "For me, it's joyful to bring a portrait of ordinary, everyday, dignified Africa," Nair said. "You never see that image onscreen."
Nair temporarily relocated to Uganda during the film's development to capture what she warmly refers to as "a portrait of extraordinary people living in abjectly difficult circumstances, who love life and find a way to embrace it."
Nair described Phiona as a "clever observer of the world," an innate skill that likely translates to her dexterity and intuition at the chess board. When Phiona taught her how to play chess, Nair used to promptly scribble down small pieces of Phiona's wisdom, which eventually became elements of the movie. "I was reckless, and she was not," Nair remembered. "I would make a bad move, and she would laugh and say, 'Mira, you must consider the other side of the board,' which is a beautiful metaphor for life."
Queen of Katwe opens in select theaters on Sept. 23.