Mira Nair was living in her adopted home of Uganda when she got a visit from a Walt Disney executive who wanted her to adapt the true story of a local chess prodigy to the screen.
Phiona Mutesi lived in an impoverished neighborhood just around the corner from Nair's home when she was discovered and eventually went on to compete in the World Chess Olympiads. Though Nair was nervous about working with a big Hollywood studio, she was excited to tell a story about Africa unlike most that make it to American audiences.
The film is called "Queen of Katwe" and it stars Lupita Nyong'o, David Oyelowo and first-time actress Madina Nalwanga, who grew up in the same part of Uganda as the lead character she plays.
Nair spoke with The Frame's host, John Horn.
On Hollywood's relationship with Africa:
If we see anything at all about Africa, it is always a colonial tale with a white person in the foreground and a nameless warrior in the background. And no country is mentioned, nothing specific is there. The continent is used usually as a backdrop to an outsider's tale. It was so inspiring to be able to consolidate living in Uganda, as I have, with the sassiness and the vibrancy and the dignity and the style of its people. And to be able to tell this unbelievably true story, which was real and also deeply inspiring — that genius truly is everywhere.
On working with Ugandan actors:
It is such a deeply moving storehouse of tradition and knowledge when you come from the continent and you're playing someone from that soil. Madina, the girl who plays Phiona, her story is very similar to Phiona's in that she grew up on the streets of Kibuli, which is next door to Katwe. She sold corn for a living. She knows every day what it is like to bathe with half an inch of water and still look like a fresh smelling rose at the end of it. Madina taught us so much while shooting ... how to cook, how to sit, how to bargain in the market.
On making a Ugandan story for an American audience
The privilege of making "Queen of Katwe" is that even though I'm taking the American audience into an entirely unfamiliar universe — a village, a street in the worst slum of Kampala — I'm hoping to have you in the tale of Phiona and her family and what makes her achieve her dream. I'm hoping that you will eventually see yourself. Because the aspiration in human beings to dream, to achieve, is not local to one place. It is a universal idea.