"'Queen Of Katwe' Was An Oasis For Me"

Oscar-winning actress Lupita Nyong'o on why her latest role is her best yet


Forget inspirational, body-positive Disney princesses for a moment.

The latest Disney film could be one of its most important yet.

The Queen of Katwe (released 21 October), directed by Mira Nair, is set in the slums of Uganda's capital, Kampala.

It tells the real life story of a girl - Phiona Mutesi - who becomes a national chess champion after discovering that she could get a cup of porridge at a chess club set up by missionary Robert Katende.


Phiona's father died of Aids when she was three years old and she was raised by her fearsome mother Harriet, played in the film by Oscar-winning actress Lupita Nyong'o.

As Phiona discovers a talent for playing chess - thanks to her ability to plan ahead and envision future moves - her aspirations begin to transcend Katwe and a life confined to the slums.

But she always maintains respect for her mother, the strongest woman she knows.


ELLE caught up with Lupita for a whirlwind 7 minutes and discovered that Queen of Katwe is not just an important Disney film; it's a role of a lifetime for the Kenyan-raised actress.

How did you hear about the story?

The first time I heard about the film was through the director Mira Nair.

She emailed me saying she'd written this role with me in mind and would I please play it.

I printed out the script and less than 10 pages in, I put it down and said I would do it.

Ten pages! That's not very long...

I just found it such a riveting story about this small girl with a big dream, that she achieves.

I liked the fact that it was a positive story with layered characters, characters with agency despite their abject poverty and extreme living conditions, that was coming out of the African continent.

I mean this was an oasis for me.

My brother and another mother. @queenofkatwemovie premiere Kampala #latergram #DavidOyelowo #miranair

A photo posted by Lupita Nyong'o (@lupitanyongo) on


What was it like bringing a film crew to the slums of Katwe?

Kampala [Uganda's capital] is a very vibrant place and as you see in the film, there's poverty but there's also a lot of wealth as well.

So for us to go and zero in on Katwe where all the real events transpired was really rewarding because we were within our research and we had to contend with the very same things Harriet [Phiona's mother] would have to contend with.

Sean Bobbitt the director of photography would often remark how it didn't matter where his camera pointed, there was always something interesting to capture.

There's life happening on all planes and so there's no way we could have replicated this environment so for me it was awesome actually.

What grabbed you most about the role of Phiona's mother, Harriet?

She's a woman who initially sees the world completely opposite to how I was brought up seeing it.

She's a woman who is distrustful of dreams and actually has found that dreaming just leads to disappointment.


Because of the hard life that she's led and the hard cards she'd been dealt, she is preparing her children for a life of strife and her journey is one where she has to come to realise that to truly love her daughter she can't act out of fear, she has to act out of radical hope.


Why does she let Phiona go to play chess?

She's also very practical and she let her daughter go to play chess everyday because he could give her a cup of porridge when she couldn't.

So that practicality, that way of facing life as straightforward as possible, is something that I think Fiona has adopted and taken to the nth degree because she has the gift of vision.

It's that gift that Robert Katende gives Phiona in teaching her how to play chess, is how to look forward. 

What did you enjoy most about Phiona's company?

I love how direct Phiona is.

She's very focused and very simple and unapologetic about it, and she also has great taste in shoes and bags.

In what way was she direct?

At the premiere in Uganda for example, I was really nervous about what Harriet was going to think. After the film, I asked Phiona what her mother thought because I hadn't seen her yet. And she was like, 'I didn't talk to her'. So I said again do you think she liked it? And she just said, 'I don't know'. No reassurance whatsoever!

But at the same time, it's true, she just doesn't know what her mother thinks and I love that about her, she will tell you exactly where she stands, when she stands, including indecision.

Disney's Queen of Katwe is out in cinemas nationwide from 21 October

When you realize the movie #QueenOfKatwe drops in ONE DAY! @QueenOfKatweMovie @Instagram

A video posted by Lupita Nyong'o (@lupitanyongo) on

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