Hollywood studios, particularly frugal executives, know how to keep a budget down. Is your inspiration African chess drama set in the slums of the Dark Continent? Shoot on a soundstage in Burbank, California, using green screen to set the atmosphere and mood. Right? Keep the costs down. That's not how Disney approached Mira Nair's new Queen of Katwe, however, and the decision to film in Africa makes all of the difference. Yes, the story inherently is about a teenage girl and her passion for the intellectual game. But showing the difficult surroundings that held down 10-year-old Phiona (Madina Nalwanga) as she fought to improve her chess skills elevate Nair's drama on practically every level.
During the Toronto International Film Festival, where Queen of Katwe held its world premiere, I was lucky enough to interview Lupita Nyong'o, who loses herself in the role of Harriet, Phiona's no-nonsense mother. The actress, who has juggled everything from 12 Years a Slave to Star Wars: The Force Awakens, said shooting on location in Africa was integral to the movie's success, explaining:
What you deal with in the slums, there is a collision of things happening there that is so hard to replicate. Even Sean Bobbitt, who was our [director of photography]... he would say that it's so easy to shoot because everywhere he turned his camera, there was something beautiful in the frame, something that told you more about the world that we were in. That can not be recreated.
As someone who has seen what Mira Nair captured on screen in Queen of Katwe, I can tell you that the vibrancy and color of the Uganda village adds necessary flavor to the story of Phiona and her chess club. Nair, who perfected her craft on movies such as Monsoon Wedding and Vanity Fair, knows that she's telling, essentially, a by-the-book underdog sports story. But she helps set it apart from likeminded narratives by focusing on the location in which Phiona's story takes place. And if Disney tried to set up the African village of Katwe on a studio using artificial props and CGI backdrops, you would be able to tell the difference. The actors, at the very least, would be able to tell the difference, and according to Nyong'o, it would affect their preparation.
Here's my conversation with Lupita Nyong'o, where we discussed what drew her to the character of Harriet, how they are different, and what filming in Africa meant to her:
Disney's Queen of Katwe, a competitive chess drama for the whole family that stars Lupita Nyong'o, David Oyelowo and Madina Nalwanga, is in theaters as we speak.