From the immortal African Queen (1951) to the giant gorilla flick Mighty Joe Young (1998) and Academy Award-winning Last King of Scotland (2006), many movies have been either set in or filmed on location in Uganda. The latest box office sensation is The Queen of Katwe, based on the life of Uganda chess prodigy Phiona Mutesi.
Born and raised in Katwe, one of Kampala’s largest slums, Phiona grew up in dire poverty and dropped out of school at an early age in order to help support her family by selling corn in a street market. Through a sports outreach program for impoverished youth, she learned how to play chess. And not just play it, but actually master the game. She won national championships at various age levels and competed abroad, eventually earning the title of Woman Candidate Master from the World Chess Federation after her stunning performance at the 2012 Chess Olympiad in Istanbul.
Based on an earlier documentary film and a book about her life, The Queen of Katwe stars Ugandan actress Madina Nalwanga as Phiona and Oscar-winner Lupita Nyong’o as her mother (Nakku Harriet). Much of the film was shot in Kampala and Katwe, including the Agape Church where Phiona learned to play chess.
Phiona’s success has inspired a chess boom in her native Uganda. The number of registered chess clubs has more than doubled and the number of players at the national junior championships has increased more than four-fold since 2012. Phiona now mentors other Uganda youth through the same outreach program that taught her the game as well as her own website (www.queenofkatwe.com).
“Chess is a lot like my life,” she said in an interview with ESPN Magazine. “If you make smart moves you can stay away from danger, but you know any bad decision could be your last.”
If you are flying on Delta this month, be sure to watch The Queen of Katwe — now showing on-board.