If anyone might be forgiven for thinking God had abandoned her, it would be Phiona Mutesi.
Born into one of the poorest areas of Uganda and raised by a single mother whose husband died of AIDS, Mutesi had no reason to think that Disney would be making a movie of her life one day. Even when she screwed up the courage to enter Robert Katende’s sports mission and sat down to play chess for the first time, the actual Queen of Katwe would have had a hard time imagining herself the subject of a movie.
Mutesi is extremely soft-spoken, her quiet voice in contrast to her powerful game and the confident poise of the Hollywood glitterati that normally anchor studio press conferences and junkets. She is instinctively deferential when asked to talk about herself, a habit born, perhaps, out of years of struggle to survive. Tellingly, when asked to name her favorite moment in a film that documents many of her competitive successes, she cites two conversations with her coach: one when she asks to live with him and his wife temporarily, the other when she challenges one of his teachings.
“Where is my safe square?” Mutesi asks the man who taught her to see chess as a metaphor for life and believes it can be something more than simply a distraction from the grinding poverty and threats that surround her. For the real-life Mutesi, her safe square may not be on the chess board, but in the hands of a God in whom she has been steadfast in believing. When asked if she had any special message for Christian viewers of the film, she said simply, “He’s always there.”
For David Oyelowo, who plays Mutesi’s teacher, Robert Katende, it was important that the film of this young woman’s transformation be helmed by a female director. Queen of Katwe is the fourth film in a short span in which he worked with a female auteur. He insists that the psychological doubts engendered by “a lifetime of opposition to the idea you can be great” is a challenge faced by women in Western cultures as well as those in Africa. Had Queen of Katwe been directed by a male, the star wonders if there would have been a temptation to make the coach the protagonist ... or maybe even to transfer the story to an American setting and make the children white.
Any time Hollywood makes movies about Christians, it is inevitable that questions will arise about whether the faith content is played down to make the film more palatable to a mass audience. Both Mutesi and Katende confirmed that they were satisfied with the way the film depicts their faith. The latter refers to himself as a “relational evangelist” who “does not compromise other people’s faith” or tell them how to act. “I know I can be a blessing,” he says, and he believes he has exercised a greater spiritual influence through service than he might through preaching.
Queen of Katwe references an injury Katende sustained while playing soccer, but it doesn’t go into much detail about how that injury changed the trajectory of his life. Before the injury, he thought he might become a Christian “one day” but only really “found peace on the field of play.” After a severe blow threatened not only his athletic dreams, but his life, his friends stressed that “it’s a miracle you’re still alive.” At that point, Katende decided, “I’m going to play for [God’s] glory,” and he committed his life to living for something besides his own success.