The newest Disney film, Queen of Katwe opens today in theaters everywhere. I am telling everyone I know to GO SEE IT. Not only because it's such an amazing story, but because it's an amazing TRUE story.
I had the privilege of sitting down with the real life 20-year-old, Phiona Mutesi (played by newcomer Madina Nalwanga) - she is the Ugandan chess champion that this story is about - and her coach, Robert Katende (artfully played by David Oyelowo), who taught her the game.
As you know, I spent a few days in LA last week doing interviews for Queen of Katwe and I got to see the film twice. Once on the Disney lot in the screening room and then again at the El Capitan Theatre with the cast and crew on Premiere night. I love this movie so much I'm taking my family to see it this weekend. Seriously.
The story of Phiona Mutesi begins in the slum of Katwe in Uganda. Her family is among the poorest of the poor with no hope of a life outside of poverty. It's there that a young Christian missionary, Robert Katende finds that he has a heart for the kids of the slum and he starts a program to teach them how to play chess.
His original "Pioneers" were 6, with Phiona and her brother Brian among them. It was at this time that he began to take notice that Phiona was quick to learn the game and he began to envision a better future for her as well as the other kids in his program.
Phiona Mutesi, in real life, is very reserved. Quiet, shy, thoughtful. She is 20 years old now and is going to be studying law at the University level. It was Robert Katende's vision and dedication that has helped her get to this place.
Robert Katende is passionate, but soft-spoken and absolutely dedicated to turning around the lives of the children of Uganda through the game of chess. They were both a little wide-eyed and amazed that their story is now a major motion picture.
As Robert says, “In a child’s life you can involve them well to the platform of chess. You can tackle abstractive thinking, problem solving, decision making, weighing options, and even responsibility because chess kind of mentors you in finding value and where you have to get comfortable with your decisions, and don’t simply make moves."
"When it comes to the programs, it's not so much entailed on chess but it's more of focusing on an individual. And if the child is different, they have different abilities, different perspectives on life, and now you find yourself in this dilemma where you have to look at each child as an individual. And to me, it's more of a community investment. You really choose to be in there and see how this is important to them."
The original 6 "Pioneers" in Robert's program, as depicted in the film, are still with him.
“And when I took them in they had not even had schooling. Now they are graduating. Commencing. It’s really a remarkable journey, for me to see them. And, besides they have professional kind of goals, they are naturally becoming leaders."
Phiona is much more quiet than Robert, but just as passionate. Chess changed her life and gave her a real future. She told us in her beautiful accented English, "Have hope in everything you're doing, and just be hard working, and just approve about yourself. You feel like, no, I don't want to be like this. Have a dream - I want to be this in my life."
Phiona's story, beautifully told in the film, Queen of Katwe is super inspiring. It's a story of promise and hope. Of overcoming odds and of triumph. Of dreams that are greater than bleak realities.
Go see it. Bring tissues.