At 16-years-old, Madina Nalwanga has only seen a movie in a theater twice in her life. The first, during a “fun field trip” of sorts while she was working on her project and the second, at the premier of Disney’s Queen of Katwe, where she was making her acting debut as the star. In the film, Nalwanga portrays Phiona Mutesi, recanting the true story of a Ugandan girl who transforms her life by becoming a national chess master.
On September 20, 2016, Nalwanga walked the red carpet at the El Capitan Theatre in Hollywood, alongside several A-listers for the movie premier, including Oscar winner Lupita Nyong’o, Twelve Years a Slave, who plays Nalwanga’s widowed-onscreen mother, Harriet. Nyong’o commented in an interview with USA Today, that when the ending credits to the film rolled, Nalwanga “buried her head in my chest. She couldn’t speak. It was a lot.”
Both girls, Nalwanga,16, and her onscreen persona, Mutesi,20, share remarkable similarities: both girls are Ugandan, born near Katwe, and both spent their childhoods as street corn vendors. So, it was “not hard,” Nalwanga quietly comments, in terms of portraying Mutesi on screen, who was originally drawn to the game of chess because it provided her a daily meal. “It was simple. Because that life is the same as my life.”
During filming, the shy teenager had a built-in family, ever protective, with watchful eyes, guiding her step-by-step through the process, making sure that she was comfortable and got the most out of her experience. “We were very protective,” states David Oyelowo in the interview, who portrays Phiona’s coach and mentor. Oyelowo took Nalwanga and other children to see Jurassic World while filming. “Madina was clawing my arm so much I had nail marks,” he laughs. “She turned to me and said, ‘Coach! Is this what we are doing?’”
Spending time in front of the silver screen wasn’t the only thing that Nalwanga’s surrogate family did to make her comfortable. Director Mira Nair helped her fill out college applications and Nyong’o, who is from Kenya, had a special request− “I asked (Madina) to teach me how to cook a typical Ugandan meal.” And a small feast it was−a local Ugandan banana dish, millet, silverfish and greens.
At a time when the racial divide in our country seems to only be getting wider, it is almost healing to see a positive story told by an Indian director about an East African young lady. “To have a film with people that look like me and Madina that they can watch and experience and be motivated by is really precious,” comments Nyong’o. “Because the impossible can be possible.”
Queen of Katwe opens in limited release on September 23, expanding nationwide September 30, 2016.