Back in 2005, Indian American filmmaker Mira Nair was shooting her thirteenth film The Namesake in New York.
Working on the set of that movie as the production assistant was a twenty-something by the name of Lupita Nyong’o: she was young, she was hungry and she shared Nair’s vision for telling stories outside of the limited white, male world view of Hollywood.
Fast forward a decade and Nair and Nyong’o are back working together again: the former with another six projects under belt and the latter with an Oscar and a stake in one of the biggest cinematic franchises, Star Wars.
Yet the project that saw them work together again was unexpected: one of Disney’s inspirational sporting films.
From Mark Wahlberg vehicle Invincible to The Mighty Ducks, historically they’ve told a very specific story. That all changed with Nair and Nyong’o pursuing the Queen Of Katwe – the true story of young woman from the slums of Uganda who went on to become an international chess champion.
“I mean it was extremely important to me that it was a story told from the inside out,” says Nyong’o.
“What attracted it to me first of all was that Mira was directing it and Mira has lived in Uganda for 27 years.
“I’ve know her for a long time and I just love her work and how she tells stories visually and emotionally.
“Uganda is a place that she clearly loves and is passionate about and has a deep respect for.
“With it being told in Uganda by Ugandans there’s a cultural authenticity that unfortunately you don’t often get to see, especially from the African continent.”
The whole concept was “very appealing” to Nyong’o, who plays the mother of chess prodigy Phiona Mutesi in the film, adding that Mira being at the helm of the project was a deciding factor.
“Africans being front and centre of their own narrative and having agency,” she says.
“There’s so much subtlety and nuance that Mira brought to it.”
The opportunity too – to make a Disney sports film that was outside of what audiences have seen for the past few decades – was one too good to resist for both Mira and Nyong’o.
“What was refreshing was that it was very specific and in its specificity it captured the universal,” she says of Queen Of Katwe.
“Those films that we’re used to are also universal and that’s why they resonate.
“But to tell it from a fresh perspective and the fact that it is a true story too coming out of the African continent that is positive, those were the things that were so executing to me because this is a version of an African tale we don’t often get to see.”
Playing Phiona’s chess coach in Queen Of Katwe is David Oyelowo, someone Nyong’o says she feels “linked” to both in front of and behind the camera.
“We’re on the same wavelength and we don’t even know it. I pick up what he puts down and he does same.
“It was great to have that very energetic and electric working relationship.”
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