The True Story Behind Disney’s New Film, Queen of Katwe


Beyond its beloved animated classics, the Walt Disney Company has a long history of releasing uplifting sports movies, usually based on true stories. In recent years, we’ve had McFarland, USA, Million Dollar Arm, Secretariat, Invincible, and many more. The latest Disney movie to follow this trend, Queen of Katwe, is based on an incredible true story.

A New Kind of Sport

Queen of Katwe
Image Credit: Disney

Queen of Katwe is not your traditional sports film. In fact, even though it follows in the same vein as previous Disney films, it’s not really about sports at all. That is, unless you consider chess a sport.

The film follows the true story of Phiona Mutesi, a young girl from Uganda who becomes a Woman Candidate Master after her performance at the World Chess Olympiads.

The Real Queen of Katwe

Phiona grew up in Katwe, a slum in the Ugandan capital of Kampala. Her father died of AIDS when she was three years old. Shortly later, her older sister Juliet died. The cause was never determined.

Her family could not afford to send Phiona to school and she was forced to drop out. When she was nine years old, she joined a chess program that was run by the Sports Outreach Institute.

She learned to play chess and later returned to school. She was an excellent student and went on to compete at the 39th Chess Olympiad.

A Chess Olympiad is a biennial chess tournament features teams from all over the world. It is essentially the World Series of chess. The World Chess Federation, also known as FIDE, is the governing organization for the Olympiads.

The following year at the 40th Chess Olympiad, Phiona was awarded the title of Woman Candidate Master. She and teammate Ivy Amoko became the first titled female chess players in Ugandan history.

From Page to the Screen

In 2012, author Tim Crothers wrote a book about Phiona. It was called The Queen of Katwe: A Story of Life, Chess, and One Extraordinary Girl’s Dream of Becoming a Grandmaster. ESPN published the book and sister company Walt Disney Pictures bought the rights.

Indian American filmmaker Mira Nair came onboard to direct the film. Producers auditioned over 700 girls for the role of Phiona. Eventually they found a 15-year-old Ugandan dance student named Madina Nalwanga who got the part.

The film is a co-production between Walt Disney and ESPN films. Queen of Katwe has won praise both for its subject matter and its non-caucasian cast. It’s rare to see a film like this from a major American film studio.

Actress Lupita Nyong’o plays Phiona’s mother, Nakku Harriet. Nyong’o won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress Award for the 2013 film 12 Years a Slave. David Oyelowo portrays Robert Katende, Phiona’s chess coach. Oyelowo played Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in the 2014 film, Selma. It was nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards that year.

In Theaters Now

Queen of Katwe opened for limited release in the United States on September 23. It will open in theaters nationwide on Friday, September 30.