If you ever wondered what it’s like to watch a movie about yourself, you can always ask Phiona Mutesi. When we speak, it’s only been a day since she finally saw “Queen of Katwe,” the new film based on her life. Some would find that a surreal experience. Not her.
“It was so humbling and so emotional,” Mutesi tells us. “I had to brush away tears every time something happened. I just couldn’t believe it.”
The movie would move anyone. Hollywood loves an underdog story, and Mutesi’s might be the ultimate. “Katwe” shows a woman who went from a slum kid in Uganda to a teen chess champion, playing around the world when she was no older than 14. Now, at 20, she’s the subject of a Disney movie featuring David Oyelowo and Lupita Nyong’o.
The movie, by Indian filmmaker Mira Nair (“Monsoon Wedding”), manages to blend uplift with an honest depiction of the world its hero escaped. Mutesi was born and, up until a few years ago lived, in Katwe, a slum of the Ugandan city Kampala. Her father died of an AIDS-related illness when was about three. An older sister, Juliet, passed when was about nine.
Even after her conquests had attracted the likes of ESPN starting in 2011, her then-daily routine consisted of walking two hours each morning just to procure drinkable water. Along with her mother, Harriet, her two brothers and a niece, she had to move six times in four years, settling for no more than shacks or tiny rooms. Mutesi does not know her date of birth, as records are not kept in Katwe.
These days Mutesi, now about 20, speaks to a barrage of journalists covering a movie that skips some of these details, but still conveys her brilliance at an elite game. It shows her (played by Madina Nalwanga) discovering a chess club for kids, run out of a local dilapidated church, by Oyelowo’s Robert Katende. He recognizes her prodigal skills early on and mentors her to wins in places like Chad and far-off Siberia. Even after her initial victories, she still returns to the slums and her fiery mother (Nyong’o).