Queen of Katwe

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Queen of Katwe
Theatrical release poster
Directed byMira Nair
Screenplay byWilliam Wheeler
Based onThe Queen of Katwe
by Tim Crothers
Produced by
CinematographySean Bobbitt
Edited byBarry Alexander Brown
Music byAlex Heffes
Distributed byWalt Disney Studios
Motion Pictures
Release dates
  • September 10, 2016 (2016-09-10) (TIFF)
  • September 23, 2016 (2016-09-23) (United States)
Running time
124 minutes[1]
CountryUnited States
Budget$15 million[2][3]
Box office$10.4 million[3]

Queen of Katwe is a 2016 American biographical sports drama film[4] directed by Mira Nair and written by William Wheeler.[5] Starring David Oyelowo, Lupita Nyong'o, and Madina Nalwanga, the film depicts the life of Phiona Mutesi, a girl living in Katwe, a slum of Kampala, the capital of Uganda. She learns to play chess and becomes a Woman Candidate Master after her victories at World Chess Olympiads.[6]

Adapted from an ESPN magazine article and book by Tim Crothers, the film was produced by Walt Disney Pictures and ESPN Films. Queen of Katwe was screened at the 2016 Toronto International Film Festival.[7] The film had a limited release in the United States on September 23, 2016, before a general theatrical release on September 30.[8]


Living in Katwe, a slum in Kampala, Uganda, is a constant struggle for 10-year-old Phiona (Madina Nalwanga), her mother Nakku Harriet (Lupita Nyong'o) and younger members of her family. She and her younger brother help their mother sell maize in the market. She also helps care for her baby brother. Her world changes one day when she meets Robert Katende (David Oyelowo) at a missionary program. Katende coaches soccer and teaches children to play chess at a local center. Curious, Phiona approaches and learns the game. She becomes fascinated with the game and soon becomes a top player in the group under Katende's guidance.

Her coach, over the initial opposition of the local chess authorities, takes her and the team to a national school level tournament at a prestigious local school. The group initially finds itself ill at ease among the other participants and the more affluent surroundings. However, their talent wins the day and Phiona comes in first place.

The film then proceeds to trace the ups and downs of success at competitions and tournaments for Phiona and her fellow Pioneers. The struggles of life in Katwe are ever present and Phiona hopes that chess will provide a means of escape from Katwe for her and her family.

Phiona leads the Uganda team at the Chess Olympiad in Russia, confident that she will succeed in becoming a Grandmaster, securing the necessary finances to lift her family from poverty. However, the competition proves too tough, and she yields to her Canadian opponent.

Phiona returns to Katwe, dejected and doubting her abilities. However, with the support of Coach Katende and the people of Katwe, she returns to chess, ultimately succeeding to the extent that she can purchase a home for her family.


Maurice Kirya and Ntare Mwine have supporting roles as Theo[10] and Tendo, respectively. Gladys Oyenbot and Rehema Nanfuka play minor roles as a shopkeeper and a nurse, respectively.

Additional Cast



Tim Crothers wrote The Queen of Katwe: A Story of Life, Chess, and One Extraordinary Girl's Dream of Becoming a Grandmaster, which chronicled Phiona Mutesi's life. Published by ESPN in 2012, it was optioned that same year by Walt Disney Pictures.[11] Tendo Nagenda, Walt Disney Studios' senior creative executive, developed the project into production. He happens to be ethnic Ugandan.[12] With executive approval from studio president Sean Bailey,[13] Nagenda went to visit Mira Nair at her Ugandan home to recruit her to direct a film about Mutesi. Nair was captivated by the story, stating, "I have always been surrounded by these local stories but hadn’t done anything in Uganda since 1991. I love any story about people who make something from what appears to be nothing."[14]

Mira Nair met with Mutesi, her mother Harriet, and the chess group run by coach Robert Katende. She invited screenwriter William Wheeler to come to Kampala to conduct interviews with the principal figures as a foundation for a screenplay.[15] Nair filmed a high-concept short and presented it to Disney, to alleviate the studio's concerns about the film being entirely set in Africa.[15]

Wheeler believed that the film could fit within the Disney tradition of films about "underdog" sports stories, noting that:

"we were trying to ... gently expand the idea of what a 'Disney film' could be. Disney was very open to wanting to tell an aspirational story about someone from someplace that is not at all familiar to Western audiences ... this could really fit into one of the things that they do very well – which is telling sports underdog stories and finding the ways the story naturally intersects with that genre of film."[16]

Nair described Queen of Katwe as "a radical film for Disney in many ways.... It has beauty and barbarity side-by-side."[13] In January 2015, Disney studio chairman Alan F. Horn greenlit the film into production for US$15 million.[13]


In January 2015, David Oyelowo and Lupita Nyong'o were cast as Robert Katende and Harriet Mutesi, respectively. They were Nair's first choices for the roles. Nyong'o said that she had decided to play the part after reading the script's first ten pages, saying "It was the first time I felt really awakened by a script and super challenged."[17][18] Oyelowo immediately accepted the role, seeing the film as a "subversive work", given the lack of diversity in contemporary American cinema.[19][20] Nair said that finding an actress to play Phiona was the most difficult. The casting search lasted from July to December 2014 and the production team auditioned nearly 700 girls.[15] The casting director found Madina Nalwanga in a community dance class. The 15-year-old Ugandan dancer was cast as Phiona.[5][21]


Principal photography began in April 2015.[22][23] The film was shot in the Katwe slums in Kampala, Uganda and in Johannesburg, South Africa. More than one hundred Ugandans were hired as extras for the street scenes; eighty had no prior experience with cameras.[24] Nair set up an acting boot camp to help prepare the children for their scenes.[25] Most professional Ugandan actors settled for roles as extras, including Gladys Oyenbot who acted as Lupita's stand-in double.[26]

Nair and cinematographer Sean Bobbitt used different visual approaches for the various matches which Mutesi plays. Katende, who was present at the shoot, designed the games, while Nair and Bobbitt worked on each shot. The chess scenes were complicated because the call sheet contained actual chess moves. Nair and editor Barry Brown cut the scenes to create some drama.[24] Production wrapped in June 2015 after 54 days of shooting.[2]


The musical score for Queen of Katwe was composed by Alex Heffes.[27] Heffes added that "It's a very thematic and gentle score that is more orchestral than something like Roots, although it's set in Africa [...] There are plenty of authentic Ugandan needle drop tracks in the film to set the scene so the score could concentrate more on the music story telling."[28]

Alicia Keys wrote and recorded the song "Back to Life" for the film; it was released on September 9, 2016 by RCA Records.[29] The official soundtrack album was released on September 23 by Walt Disney Records, with its deluxe edition also releasing the same day.[30][31]


Queen of Katwe had its world premiere at the 2016 Toronto International Film Festival on September 10.[32] Disney held the corporate premiere at the El Capitan Theatre in Hollywood on September 20,[33] with another screening at the Urban World Festival on September 22.[34] The African premieres were held in Kampala on October 1[35] and Johannesburg on October 5.[36] The film had its European debut at the 2016 BFI London Film Festival on October 9.[37] Another screening was held at the Morelia International Film Festival in Mexico on October 22.[38] On November 12, it was screened at the Taipei Golden Horse Film Festival and at the Brisbane Asia Pacific Film Festival on the 24th.[39][40]

Walt Disney Studios Home Entertainment released the film on Blu-ray and DVD on January 31, 2017, with a digital release on January 10.[41]


Box office[edit]

Queen of Katwe opened on September 23 as a limited release in the United States, with an estimated Friday total of $82,000 averaging $1,577 per screen across 52 selected theaters. By the opening weekend, it earned $304,933 averaging $5,864 per screen.[42] It opened on wide release on September 30 to 1,242 screens, and went on to gross $2.5 million in the first week.[43]

Critical response[edit]

Queen of Katwe received positive reviews from critics, with David Oyelowo and Lupita Nyong'o's performances receiving unanimous praise.[44][45] Review aggregation website Rotten Tomatoes gives the film an approval rating of 94% based on 191 reviews and an average rating of 7.40/10. The website's critical consensus states: "Queen of Katwe is a feel-good movie of uncommon smarts and passion, and Lupita Nyong'o and David Oyelowo's outstanding performances help elevate the film past its cliches."[46] On Metacritic, the film has a normalized rating of 73 out of 100 based on reviews from 40 critics, indicating "generally favorable reviews".[47] Audiences polled by CinemaScore gave the film an average grade of "A+" on an A+ to F scale.[42]


List of awards and nominations
Award Date of ceremony Category Recipient(s) Result Ref(s)
African-American Film Critics Association February 8, 2017 Top 10 Films Queen of Katwe 10th place [48]
Africa Movie Academy Award July 15, 2017 Africa Movie Academy Award for Most Promising Actor Madina Nalwanga Won [49]
Africa Movie Academy Award for Best Actor in a Leading Role David Oyelowo Nominated
Africa Movie Academy Award for Best Actress in a Leading Role Lupita Nyong'o Nominated
Africa Movie Academy Award for Best Director Mira Nair Nominated
Africa Movie Academy Award for Best Film Queen of Katwe Nominated
Africa Movie Academy Award for Best Production Design Queen of Katwe Nominated
Africa Movie Academy Award for Best Costume Design Queen of Katwe Won
Africa Movie Academy Award for Best Visual Effects Queen of Katwe Nominated
Alliance of Women Film Journalists December 21, 2016 Best Woman Director Mira Nair Nominated [50][51]
Best Breakthrough Performance Madina Nalwanga Nominated
Black Reel Awards February 16, 2017 Outstanding Actress Madina Nalwanga Nominated [52]
Outstanding Supporting Actress Lupita Nyong'o Nominated
Outstanding Original Song "Back to Life" – Alicia Keys, Illangelo and Billy Walsh Nominated
Critics Choice Awards December 11, 2016 Best Young Performer Madina Nalwanga Nominated [53]
Evening Standard British Film Awards December 8, 2016 Best Actor David Oyelowo (also for A United Kingdom) Nominated [54]
Golden Tomato Awards January 12, 2017 Best Kids/Family Movie 2016 Queen of Katwe 2nd Place [55]
London Film Critics' Circle January 22, 2017 British/Irish Actor of the Year David Oyelowo (also for A United Kingdom) Nominated [56]
NAACP Image Awards February 11, 2017 Outstanding Actress Madina Nalwanga Nominated [57]
Outstanding Supporting Actress Lupita Nyong'o Nominated
Outstanding Supporting Actor David Oyelowo Nominated
Outstanding Film Director Mira Nair Nominated
National Film Awards UK March 29, 2017 Best Actress Lupita Nyong'o Nominated [58]
Best International Film Queen of Katwe Nominated
Toronto International Film Festival September 18, 2016 People's Choice Award Mira Nair 3rd Place [59]
Women Film Critics Circle December 19, 2016 Best Movie by a Woman Queen of Katwe Nominated [60]
Best Young Actress Madina Nalwanga Nominated
Best Female Images in a Movie Queen of Katwe Nominated
Best Family Film Queen of Katwe Won


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External links[edit]