We’ve all seen movies about the poor kid who uses an unlikely talent to escape to a better life. In “Stand and Deliver,” it was calculus; in “The Blind Side,” it was football. Sports and math are feasible (if somewhat unlikely) ways to make a living. But who builds a future on chess?
This new spin on an old story is, in part, what drew Lupita Nyong’o to her latest role, as Harriet in “Queen of Katwe.” The film, based on an actual story, focuses on Harriet’s daughter, Phiona (Madina Nalwanga), who lives with her mom in a Ugandan slum. Scraping out an existence by selling maize in the crowded city streets, Phiona is illiterate, exhausted and all but resigned to her situation until she stumbles across a chess club run by Robert Katende (David Oyelowo.) Chess creates a space in which Phiona can dream — but not everyone thinks that’s a good thing.
“You can open a child’s mind to another world, to other possibilities, but how do you ensure that they can achieve those things? And what happens when they have to deal with the disappointment of not being able to achieve those things?” Nyong’o says. “They are left in limbo, because the world that they have come from is no longer good enough, and the world that they are seeking to attain is not in their grasp.”
Nyong’o came to the attention of U.S. audiences with her Oscar-winning performance as the enslaved Patsey in 2013’s “12 Years a Slave.” Since then, she appeared (mostly masked by CGI) as Maz Kanata in “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” and provided the voice of Raksha, Mowgli’s wolf mother, in this summer’s “The Jungle Book.” She also won a role in 2018’s “Black Panther,” the first Marvel movie to focus on a black superhero.
Born in Mexico City to Kenyan parents, Nyong’o spent her childhood in Kenya before returning to Mexico at 16. She then studied at Hampshire College in Massachusetts before obtaining a master’s degree from the Yale School of Drama.
“I grew up on a very healthy diet of foreign popular culture,” Nyong’o says. “I watched Australian TV, Mexican, American, Brazilian, British. I knew that there was a world out there that was different than mine, and I was able to relate with that world. I may never have worn a winter coat, but I have had a fight with my best friend. I have fallen out with my mother, I have lied to my teacher — they’re universal.”
She noticed, though, that those universal stories rarely seemed to come from Africa. “I was thirsty for this kind of material,” she says. “I grew up in a place that was populated with these kinds of stories — rich and relevant. And so to make this movie and say, ‘Yes, this may be a world that you may never had visited, but there is something you can learn from this world, there’s something you can relate to,’ was so refreshing to me.”
So “Queen of Katwe” is, fundamentally, the very universal story about a protective parent and a more adventurous child. Nyong’o is vehement, though, that Harriet is no helicopter parent, worrying about unlikely dangers. Born out of wedlock and shuttled between houses, the real Harriet became a mother for the first time at 15. After having four children, her husband died of AIDS, followed by her daughter (not the one who plays chess) from unknown causes only weeks later. All of this instability, Nyong’o says, gave Harriet what Nyong’o calls a “poverty mentality.”
It’s “the idea that you need to make do with the little you’ve been given, and asking for any more is extravagant,” Nyong’o says. “Wanting to have a life outside of poverty is something that Harriet has not seen as possible as a woman in this community, so how can she possibly instill with confidence that dream in her daughter?”
As Phiona’s talent grows, and she becomes a major player in the world of youth chess, her tournaments take her to places unimaginable to her mother. In the course of a day, Phiona can move from a luxury hotel with a swimming pool and an all-you-can-eat buffet back to a one-room house with no running water and not enough food. The trophies and medals, tangible signs of Phiona’s gift, seem to belong to a different world.
“You see the baby using a trophy cup as a plate, because they need a plate,” Nyong’o says. “You are constantly being faced with the impracticality of this pursuit.”
It’s practicality that eventually starts Harriet down the path of giving Phiona — and herself — a chance to dream.
“I asked [the real-life Harriet] why she let Phiona go [to the chess club], and her first reason was Robert Katende provided [Phiona] with a cup of porridge every day,” Nyong’o says. Eventually, “she gets to a place where she realizes that her daughter’s life does not have to look like hers. Her journey is one where she has to learn that the best way to show her daughter love is to act out of radical hope” rather than fear.
The universality of “Queen of Katwe” (directed by “Monsoon Wedding’s” Mira Nair) is what will attract most of its audience, but the fact that it is deeply grounded in its setting has special meaning for Nyong’o.
“I love that [Nair] keeps the integrity of the place, the authenticity, the humor — just the vibrancy of the area, without getting sentimental,” she says. “This movie had everything I want as an actor. These are layered characters; they have real hopes, dreams, wants, concerns. And it is about an African woman that we just do not get to see.”