Lupita back in East Africa for film about chess prodigy


Following the excitement generated by a film about a ‘king of Scotland’, Uganda is bracing itself for the production of a new movie about a “queen”, starring Oscar winner Lupita Nyong’o.

Lupita Nyong’o, seen here on the May 2015 cover of the UK edition of Harper’s Bazaar, will play the part of Harriet, chess champion Phiona Mutesi’s mother
Lupita Nyong’o, seen here on the May 2015 cover of the UK edition of Harper’s Bazaar, will play the part of Harriet, chess champion Phiona Mutesi’s mother

The Hollywood star, who was born in Mexico but raised in Kenya by Kenyan parents, jetted into neighbouring Uganda a few days ago for her first job in East Africa since taking the 2014 Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress in Steve McQueen’s “12 Years a Slave”.

“I’m loving the food, I’m loving the people, I’m loving the style,” she said ahead of the start of production for the film “Queen of Katwe”.

“I don’t feel like leaving. People just have an innate style, so I’m taking notes. And I’m really loving working on this film.”

The Disney production, directed by Indian filmmaker Mira Nair, is a biopic looking at chess coach Robert Katende and his star pupil Phiona Mutesi, who grew up in Kampala’s Katwe slum.

After happening upon chess as a famished nine-year-old, Phiona quickly developed a talent for the game and became a national champion, going on to participate in international Olympiads and becoming, along with older compatriot Ivy Amoko, a Woman Candidate Master (WCM).

Lupita is portraying Phiona’s mother, Harriet Mutesi, in the highest profile film project to come to Uganda since the 2006 movie “The Last King of Scotland” about Ugandan dictator Idi Amin, which garnered an Oscar for Forest Whitaker in the title role.

An alumna of Maisha Film Lab, a training initiative for up and coming East African filmmakers founded by Nair, Nyong’o said the movie was an “empowering story about what’s possible if you allow yourself to dream”.

“I didn’t know that chess could make such a difference in people’s lives, a fundamental difference in how they look at themselves and deal with the life ahead of them,” the 32-year-old told reporters at a press conference with Nair, Katende and Mutesi.

“It’s not very often that you see a positive image of Africa on screen.”

Despite her Kenyan roots, Ugandans are also proud of Nyong’o, and part of her Oscar speech is painted on the wall of a local cafe. But she has reportedly gone unrecognised by some locals since arriving.

“It’s so lovely to be around people that are my complexion all the time, that’s been a breath of fresh air,” said Nyong’o, wearing a long, tight-fitting black and white gown by local label KWESH.

“What I love about being in Uganda so far is that I can be myself. I don’t feel restricted.”

“Queen of Katwe” will also star “Selma” actor David Oyelowo, with 20 street kids as “chess pioneers”.

Katende’s chess programme is now running in five Kampala slums as well as in former camps for internally displaced people in northern Uganda, and he hopes to expand it to Kenya. He said Nyong’o was “so humble” and “down to earth” despite being a film star.

Phiona, who has been sitting exams, arrived in her school uniform as Katende had not told her about the event until the last minute to avoid distracting her.

“I don’t believe it… I’m meeting Lupita. This is overwhelming,” she said.

Other Lupita-based news – the actress is on the new (May) cover of Harper’s Bazaar UK, dubbed “the new face of beauty.” She became the first black ambassador of Lancôme last year.