Lupita Nyong’o won an Oscar — and became an overnight A-lister — for her supporting role in Twelve Years a Slave (2013). Three years later, she’s helping tell another true story of resilience in Queen of Katwe. This time, the heroine is a poor Ugandan girl who learns chess through an outreach program and becomes an international prodigy.
“It’s huge because we don’t get to see this version of an African story,” Nyong’o told Pete Dominick on Monday. “Oftentimes, the versions we see are through the lenses of foreigners or larger scopes of war and disease and famine and what have you, and dictators. But here we have a very intimate story about an ordinary person who achieves something extraordinary, and I think we all around the world can identify with that girl, with that desire to figure out where you belong.”
In Queen of Katwe, Nyong’o plays Nakku Harriet, the mother of main character Phiona Mutesi. The film follows Mutesi as she learns chess in her slum, Katwe, with the help of coach Robert Katende.
“What happens with poverty is that you lead a very reactionary life. You are just thinking about the very next moment, the very next meal, and you don’t have the luxury of time or circumstance to think about the future. And I think what is so powerful about this game chess and the way that Robert Katende teaches it to the kids is that it’s a game of strategy,” she said.
“You know where you are, you know where you want to go, and you need to figure out what obstacles you will meet along the way in order to get there. And that lesson taught on a chess board is something that Phiona knows to apply, ends up applying to her life, and it ends up equipping her to see more than one move ahead. And I think that is the biggest gift to give people in poverty: the opportunity to have vision.”
The star praised Disney for being willing to tell the tale, especially with director Mira Nair, a woman of color, behind the camera.
“This film is such a breath of fresh air,” she said. “All too often, we see the African story as one of want, need, and ‘help me, help me.’ But here, the Africans are front and center, and these are people taking care of themselves. Phiona gets to realize her own potential with the help of her mentor, and she uses that potential. And it’s harnessed, and she’s able to get herself and her family out of poverty. So in this regard, we merge into the Katwe lane. We’re not … looking down upon these people. We’re joining them in their humanity, and I think that’s something so beautiful about how Mira told this story.”
Nyong’o was born in Mexico but raised in Kenya. She returned to Mexico for seven months when she was 16 to learn Spanish and then moved to the United States to attend Hampshire College and, later, Yale University’s drama school.
Because of her international upbringing, the actress has a unique perspective on African-American inclusion in the film industry as well as the current racial tensions in the U.S.
“I grew up in a majority race where I’m from, so I didn’t really have to grapple with this idea of being black until I got … to Mexico and then to the United States of America. So my relationship with race has been perhaps different from the average person who grows up in America. My identity as black is something that I’ve grown into being here. But when you are black in this country, the things that affect the race affect you. I’m definitely a member of the black community here, and it’s something that I embrace and that I take on,” she said. “But it’s definitely something that you have to adjust to. It’s discombobulating.”
Watch Dominick and Nyong’o’s full conversation in the Facebook Live video below:
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