Robert Katende, the inspirational teacher who is featured in Disney’s new film Queen of Katwe, explains in real life how he strives to empower children to become leaders: “Success is not about luck, it’s about focusing on your dream, taking the challenges as they come, and having the correct role models” (NTVUganda).
A True Story
The unlikely heroine of Queen of Katwe, a little girl named Phiona Mutesi— played with subtle and compelling intensity by young actress, Madina Nalwanga— has grown up with every obstacle to success imaginable. Born into abject poverty in the slums of Katwe, in Kampala, Uganda, Phiona is often without food or a roof over her head, and cannot afford to go to school. By the age of 9, she has little time for anything else but to sell maize on the streets and help her mother with the daily chores.
Phiona’s fortunes change when an earnest and idealistic young man from a local ministry named Robert Katende — played to a T by David Oyelowo — starts a chess class for Katwe children, offering them porridge to entice them to classes. Phiona, always hungry, takes the bait and starts to go to chess class every day with her brother.
Soon it becomes apparent that in spite of being illiterate, she has not only a remarkable gift for chess but a keen intelligence and an indomitable spirit. Katende begins to advocate for her. He enlists her mother to help.
Nakku Harriet, played by Academy Award winner Lupita Nyong’o, is a model of strength, pride, and dignity in the face of adversity, and is willing to sacrifice even the little she has to help her children. The real-life Harriet explained in an NTVUganda interview, “Children are a gift from God: we shouldn’t give up on them that easily.”
Clearly Phiona takes after her mother. In real life as in the film, Harriet and Phiona have a very special mother-daughter bond, which is made poignantly clear by Nyong’o’s nuanced and masterful performance as Phiona’s mother.
The movie is filmed in Africa, has an almost entirely African cast, and an African music score. Mira Nair, known for movies like Monsoon Wedding, Namesake and Salaam Bombay! is the director, and skillfully takes us inside Phiona’s world, letting the film demonstrate how our common humanity rises above of issues of race and culture. Tendo Nagenda, executive VP of production at Disney, talked about the conception of the movie Queen of Katwe in an article on wired.com,
“One of the things in and around diversity or inclusion that I think gets overlooked is people simplify it to something that has to do with race or culture. It’s a lot more than that for me, and I think for Disney. It’s about the type of stories. Queen of Katwe is a true story instead of a fictional story. But it’s also a story told from a female perspective and a female-empowered point-of-view. And it was made with and by extremely strong women. And it’s set in a different place and a different culture. All of those things add to inclusive storytelling. I hope that catches people’s attention as much as the hue of the people onscreen.”
What Is Success And Where Does One Find It?
Queen of Katwe paints the picture of an inclusive and cosmopolitan world and how we can share our gift of life. “It’s not about winning titles, but becoming a champion in life,” says Katende in an interview in People Magazine.
The real life Phiona is now 20 years old, the Junior Chess Champion of Africa, with a treasure trove of gold medals and trophies. She hopes to become a Grand Master one day. But she is also planning to become a pediatrician and to return to Katwe, where she grew up, to help other children like her rise out of desperate circumstances. When asked why she is doing both she replies, “I can do both, pursue the outside and the inside at the same time” (NTVUganda).
I think that is the answer: that everything we do or accomplish in life has personal meaning and is a gift towards a bigger and better world. It is in discovering genius and offering the opportunity for brilliance to blossom, wherever you find it. It is helping others to do the same.