Katwe experience: Based on the vibrant story of Phiona Mutesi, whose world rapidly changes when she is introduced to the game of chess, and, as a result of the support she receives from her family and community, is instilled with the confidence and determination to pursue her dream of becoming an international chess champion. Part of the cast; Lupita Nyong’o, David Oyelowo, Madina Nalwanga, Martin Kabanza, Esther Tebandeke, and Peter Odeke shared their experience of the movie that officially premiered in Uganda last Saturday at Century Cinemax. Isaac Ssejjombwe writes.
Before the movie, no one knew Nalwanga, she was just a 16-year-old dancer and student. She was spotted from her dance classes and tasked with a role in the movie. She is the main character in the movie and plays Phiona Mutesi, the chess master.
“Phiona’s life is my life. Everything she went through to be successful is everything I went through. Phiona sold maize on the streets with her brother, so did I at four years. She followed her brother to get a cup of porridge before getting interested in chess, I followed my friend for a cup of tea to join dance,” Nalwanga narrates.
She adds that before the movie, her entire family was unwanted: “No one wanted to associate with us and it was only my brother, Mark who believed in me. But now everyone wants to relate with us, they want to know my family.”
The now trending movie star says the movie has made her realise that people start embracing you when you are a star. She confirms that she will continue with school and that stardom will not overcome her because of she has great people such as Mira Nair, David Oyelowo, Lupita Nyongo and her mum by her side.
Although Disney’s marketing relies on Lupita and Oyelowo’s popularity, Nalwanga is the true star of the film. Despite her inexperience, she delivers a heart wrenching performance on par with Nyong’o and Oyelowo.
He is crazy about football and his Queen of Katwe was Martin Kabanza debut acting role. His performance surprised everybody and just like Nalwanga, he says his acting career will never blind his studies. The Senior Two student, who plays Mutesi’s brother, says he was almost fired from the movie because of looking in the camera.
“Madam Mira almost kicked me out for looking in the camera. However much I was told to act natural, I always wanted to see if the camera was focused on me. It took a lot of warning for me to stop,” Kabanza says.
Because of the role, Kabanza had to forego his first passion (football) because of fear that he might get injured and miss out on the opportunity of featuring in the Disney hit. He adds that the movie helped him get recognised by the rich kids in his neighborhood.
“Where I play football from, we are divided in two groups; one group belongs to the well-to-do families and another side belongs to the poor. When some people heard that I was featuring in a movie, the rich kids embraced me like I was one of them. They even asked that I should start playing on their side.”
“Having done films that are true stories before, there is nothing that compares to filming in an actual place with actual people. Not only were we shooting from actual locations where some of the things really happened, but we also literally lived in that community,” Oyelowo says. He adds that in studios in Vancouver or New York, you have to imagine more than what you are availed with.
The Nigerian-born British actor credits Robert Katende, whose role he plays in the movie, for being there and helping him with all the required research. “I had Robert the whole time, consulting with him”.
Oyelowo has played supporting roles in films such as Rise of the planet of the apes, Middle of Nowhere and Lincoln, among others but is popular for his roles in Selma and the Butler.
Peter Odeke is not a new face on Ugandan screens. He was once a news anchor on STV and WBS TV. And Queen of Katwe is not the first film he has featured in as he was part of other movies such as Sometimes in April (2005), Shake Hands With the Devil (2007) and Ezra.
Although he did not have much of a role in Queen of Katwe, just acting as a villain was challenging because he is actually a nice guy.
“Having to play a role like that, especially to David Oyelowo was challenging because you actually get to see the amount of effort that international actors put into different roles. Transforming themselves, changing their accents shows budding actors like us that we have a long way to go. I totally enjoyed the entire experience and hope it is going to be a stepping stone to other things.
She acts as Harriet, Phiona’s mother and for Lupita, credit goes to the movie for its reality. “To be in Katwe, you are dealing with all sorts of reality. I remember in one of the scenes, a goat actually came into the shot and Mira did not say cut. We just had to keep going. So with this movie, you are dealing with life in the moment and besides that, there was always something to film about in Katwe, which made it an appropriate location.”
“I went from shooting Star Wars films to a CGI character in funny suits. I didn’t even have costumes, but being in Uganda; in Buganda with Luganda sounding all around me, was so exhilarating,” Lupita adds.
The Mexican-born Kenyan actress shot to fame after her role in 12 Years a Slave
Before this movie, she had always been cast away either because of her big lips, natural hair or dark skin.
“As an actress, I have probably been underprivileged because I have previously auditioned for films but always been told I’m too dark or too natural hair or too big lipped or too deep voiced, so I opted for theatre,” Tebandeke says. The actress attributes her zeal to Lupita, who she says inspired her to be composed and believe in herself. “After winning her Oscar, I finally knew this is my chance, because we are the same age, same colour, same continent. So the movie has empowered me to believe that everything is possible. If the movie was a song, I would be launching an album because this is so huge for us as a country.” The day Mira told her that she had a role is something that she will never forget. “In fact, I even wrote it on a slide in my house which is Feb 6, 5 minutes past 2pm. It was a humbling moment for me!”
Before that date, Tebandeke had gone for the auditions at National Theatre but was left disappointed after actors in their 20s were told to step aside, yet she is in her 30s. When the chance came for her to stand in front of the camera she said: “Disney, you need to take me despite my big lips.”
Tebandeke started working as a contemporary dancer in 2008 before performing with various dance companies in Uganda. She has staged performances at various arts platforms, including Dance Week Uganda, Dance Transmissions Festival (both annual contemporary dance showcases), Bayimba International Festival of the Arts and Umoja International Festival.
Zohran Mamdani (Music Supervisor)
One of the factors that makes Queen of Katwe stand out is the music in the movie and that could be attributed to a man known as Zohran Mamdani. He made his research about Uganda and realised that Ugandans and music are inseparable.
“Something that came to my mind was just echoing the essence and specificity of the film. My idea was to just create a sound for the film that is actually keeping what Kampala listens to but I realised that when you walk around Kampala, you will always hear music,” he said.
Mamdani also adds that some of the songs they selected have always lived on and are so familiar with Ugandans because they are somehow versions of the national anthem. He gave an example of ‘Eno mic’ by Ziggy Dee which he says has tasted time.
According to the music supervisor, the songs in the movie are a symbol of Uganda and will forever be remembered.
Besides ‘Eno Mic’, other songs in the movie include ‘Ndi Muna Uganda’ by Bobi wine, ‘Kyempulila’ and ‘Bakwagala Olina’ by A Pass, ‘Kuzaala Kujagaana’ by Irene Namatovu, Madoxx’s ‘Omuyimbi’, ‘Harambe by Saba Saba feat E-Dee, ‘Sipowa’ by Young Mulo and ‘Tugenda mu Afrgo’ by Grace Lukomwa and Afrigo Band among others.
What the movie means to Uganda
With just three premiers so far in Canada, USA and Uganda, Queen of Katwe is so far the most reviewed movie this season. As Ugandans, the movie is a blessing because most of the cast are Ugandans and this was their debut acting roles. It is one story that has Uganda reviewed on the other side of the coin besides diseases and wars. With the Oscars and other award ceremonies around the corner, if it happens to win, it will be the second after Last King of Scotland to have won a mega accolade.