Today, I’ll be going on a date (with Taylor Bare) to watch the most inspirational family film of the year. QUEEN OF KATWE finally opens in theaters everywhere. I have been waiting for this day since I saw the first preview, and certainly after I had a chance to screen the film in Los Angeles at the beginning of August.
QUEEN OF KATWE is a vibrant film, directed by Mira Nair, and starring David Oyelowo, Lupita Nyong’o and amazing newcomers from the slum of Katwe in Kampala, Uganda, the place where the story of Phiona Mutesi took place, and where her life was positively transformed through the game of chess.
Can you imagine my excitement when I learned that I was invited as one of the 25 Top Disney Bloggers to walk the red carpet and interview the stars, filmmakers, and the real life inspirations for this film? That was a long question. But it can be answered in one word: BLESSED.
“Queen Of Katwe” is an inspiring collision of some of my top passions: Disney, chess, empowerment, inspiration, faith… just to name a few. And, just after I received the invite, I started to read the Queen Of Katwe book, (aff link) in preparation for my second Disney blogger trip with dream-maker Marshall.
I had dogeared so many pages in some sort of bookworm code, but when I came across page 217, I folded it excessively because I wanted it to stand out. I knew if I had the chance to ask a question to Robert Katende, it would be about this. It would be about fear. It would be about how to have the courage to step out and follow your dream, especially when you don’t really see how it could happen, or don’t truly believe you deserve it, or it is possible for you.
Have you ever allowed yourself to dream just to end up setting it aside because you just don’t see how it’s going to end; you are afraid of failure, of being disappointed, of exerting the little time and energy you have into something that doesn’t look like it will work out? Another long question to which I think I may know the answer: YES. I think we’ve all felt like that at some point.
That’s why Queen Of Katwe is my favorite movie and why I feel everyone in the planet really needs to watch it. Yes, it’s definitely engaging and cinematically captivating. Yes, it contains the comedic and dramatic elements that you look for when investing 124 minutes of your life into a film. Yes, you will enjoy the visual elements, the costumes, the score, the soundtrack, and the cinematographic techniques. Yet, it goes beyond that… something that I cannot convey and you’ll have to experience for yourself, and will maybe feel in the words of these incredible people I had the tremendous honor to meet and interview.
To be in their presence was to be in the presence of giants. There was a godly aura in the room, and a pure energy that had my spirit trembling. I just couldn’t believe I was in the same room with Phiona Mutesi and Robert Katende!
My thoughts were interrupted when Phiona answered a question about how she felt about this experience: going to the “big theater,” walking the Red Carpet, doing interviews…
“I cannot believe it!.. I couldn’t [believe] that I was watching myself. I feel like I shouldn’t be there, like, shouldn’t it be someone else?… It feels too huge for me.”
This moment was surreal to me, because sometimes I have felt like maybe if I go for something I desire, it would be too huge for me, and it seems too scary. And just like that, while we all assured Phiona she belonged here, I decided in that moment that I did too, and that I would step out and ask my question.
Then Coach Katende started to tell us that this experience was something that he could never have imagined in his life.
“It just proved to me a sense of awareness that you get encouragement of what you’re doing because you step out to do this, even without knowing that it could be anything big [especially] when I look back to my childhood. And I’m so grateful for the ladies. It’s quite interesting that even this house is full of them. I have a special place in my heart, right from my grandma, to my aunties, and I think it’s the actual reason why God has given me my little task.”
But Coach Katende’s task is everything but little.
“Before I met Robert and started playing chess, I had lost all hope,” says Phiona Mutesi. “I was sad because I recently lost my dad and there was no money for school and I thought I would always be living on the streets. Since then, I have travelled to many different countries and met many wonderful people who I never expected to meet, which has helped restore my hope. I thank God that I met Robert and learned to play chess, because it is chess that made all these things possible.”
Two years after Phiona found Robert’s chess program in a makeshift Agape Church in Katwe, she became Uganda’s junior chess champion and eventually, the national champion. Then in 2012 at the age of 16 at her second Olympiad, she became a Woman Candidate Master, the first step towards Grand Master. Earlier this year Phiona graduated from St. Mbuga Vocational Secondary School, where she was student president. She is currently in the process of applying to college and hopes to become a doctor or lawyer.
“She was nine, and now she’s twenty,” says Katende of Phiona. “They have now become young adults. And when I took them they had not even schooling. So it’s really a remarkable journey, for me to see them. They have professional goals, they are naturally becoming leaders.”
As a mentor, and father figure, Coach Katende has helped transform thousands of lives of kids in the slums of Kampala who were once illiterate, hopeless, and unaware of what they had to offer, inspiring them to become individuals who see beyond their circumstances, believe in themselves, and realize their potential, whatever the odds may be.
Which takes me to the question I asked and why. Robert Katende survived a scarring childhood as a refugee of Uganda’s Bush war, and overcame extreme poverty through becoming an excellent student and skilled athlete. He received a degree in civil engineering and then decided to devote his life to helping children through sports ministry. Katende founded the SOM Chess Academy in 2004.
The Queen Of Katwe book quotes Coach Katende as he encourages his mentees, the “Pioneers,” with a verse in the New Testament:
“The rest feared. But St. Peter was the one who stepped out of the boat. It wasn’t an easy situation. It is extraordinary. Unrealistic. How do you get out of the boat then step on the water when you know you are definitely going to drown? But that’s when you realize it was a miracle. He could do it. If he hadn’t stepped out, there would be no miracle. So that’s why sometimes we need to get out of our boats to realize a miracle. We can’t just sit back and wait for a miracle to happen… If you ask me how was I able to keep sponsoring myself for school, I can’t tell you because I don’t know. All these miracles started happening, but only after I took the first step. Each one of you is realizing a miracle because you had the courage to step out of the boat. All of you can walk on water.”
Step out. Step out. STEP OUT. Take the first step and a miracle will happen. You can walk on water. Your success will be so great that you will feel as if you are walking on water.
But you may be wondering: how can I overcome the fear? And that’s exactly what I asked him. How did he inspire the Katwe slum kids from despair to dream? I found five key points in his response:
- He inspired them with a real life situation they could relate to
- He encouraged them to take the responsibility to be the first and be the person who will turn things around
- He instilled a sense of discipline and responsibility.
- He saw things from their perspective
- He used his personal story to motivate them to find a way out, rather than looking at what could have been
“I’m a typical orphan; I never knew that things would ever change. But in every case, I had to keep on trying. I’d rather try than fail to try, and then I say it didn’t work out. There are moments when I wanted to do so much. I was really good in academics, but I can imagine reading today because you have exams in two weeks, but you’re not sure whether you’re going to [take] them because you don’t realize the future. So you ask many times, why should I really? If it doesn’t happen, I will have done my part. That’s the kind of approach I take.”
If it doesn’t happen, I will have done my part. If your dream doesn’t happen, at least you would have done your part and become who you were meant to be, and lived as a person who is worthy of that dream. That is so good!
But there’s also the fear that comes when you’ve stepped out and you get knocked down. So my question to Phiona, was: “what can we do when we feel defeated?”
“Whenever I would lose a game, most of the time I would cry. With the pain of pressure, that’s when I cry most. Whenever I was in Uganda, I could [win] most of my games, so here I am; I’m coming to Russia; I forgot that is different experience from Uganda and, from that, I got an experience- a great one. So it doesn’t affect me anymore. Whenever I lose, it’s just part of the game. I just had to learn from that.”
Her advice to young girls who are scared of stepping out and following their dreams:
“It just takes hope. Have hope in everything you’re doing, and just be hard working, and just approve about yourself. Have a dream: I want to be this in my life.I don’t want to be like this.”
- Learn from your losses.
- Have hope.
- Believe in what you’re doing.
- Work hard.
- Approve yourself.
- Have a dream of what you want to be.
- Use your reality as fuel for your dream.
So much wisdom and inspiration.
And so little time to tell you everything that was inspiring about this interview. But I must add one more key point that Mira Nair made obvious to me:
“I really wanted to capture is that you cannot do it alone. You have to have the fire in you, but it takes a village. It takes a teacher to see your talent. It takes a mother to shepherd you, whether it is a right shepherding or not. With a teacher like this, with a community like this, with a street like this, with a family like this, it is possible to achieve what you dream for. It’s not just one girl’s story, but what I call the prismatic story, the story of the whole street, the story of the family, the story of the mother and the complexity of every character.”
To step out, to achieve your dream, you need someone to encourage you to step out of the boat.
“I believe that chess is one of the most effective tools for empowerment and teaching life principles,” says Katende.
And that he did. And besides the fact that you and I need a mentor in our lives, we can also learn from his wisdom to be better shepherdess to our own children, looking at them as individuals with different abilities and perspectives.
“Mentorship is not something really you can just say it’s on and then off. It’s a an ongoing process. And it’s not like, I will come and teach you, and then go away, but you allow them to learn your weaknesses, to learn how you face difficulties, how you respond to them. It’s not a short case kind of situation, but you’re more like living with them on a daily basis, and they learn the positive way how to react to grief; how to respond to calamities if they occur. So you are their only model. They’re there to pick every lesson from you- so they become part of you.”
And when you watch Queen Of Katwe, you will get a sense of how this played out in the kids’ lives and how you can apply the timeless principles you will learn in your life. When I interviewed Mira Nair, I was awestruck to learn how true to life the movie is.
Katende was on set throughout principal photography, serving as both a technical consultant and coach to the local young actors who portrayed his original chess students, so they could understand why they were making certain moves and why one move could make or break a game. He worked closely with David Oyelowo on the role:
“I think to me, it was more intimidating because I thought that portraying someone was a lie, but… it was very free; very open, and [David] would come to me, and asking every time: ‘Robert, anything you can find that is not in line, let me know!’ He would come and say: ‘Robert, how do you say this?’
Katende confessed that he regrets not giving Oyelowo an opportunity to dance in a tournament celebration, because he is not fond of dancing himself.
In contrast, Madina didn’t need any coaching, because just like Phiona, she had sold corn in the streets of an Ugandan slum and had stepped out using her talent as a way out of the typical slum life.
This movie is going to become a family favorite. Enjoy it this weekend, and make sure you bring tissues (for tears of JOY) and to stay through the end credits!
“Queen of Katwe,” is presented by Disney, in association with ESPN Films, starring Golden Globe® nominee David Oyelowo, Oscar® winner Lupita Nyong’o and introducing Madina Nalwanga.Masterfully directed by Mira Nair from a screenplay by William Wheeler,“Queen of Katwe” is produced by Lydia Dean Pilcher, p.g.a., and John B. Carls, p.g.a., with Will Weiske and Troy Buder serving as executive producers.
Queen Of Katwe is Certified Fresh on Rotten Tomatoes with a current score of 92% and audiences who saw it last weekend during the limited release gave it an A+ Cinemascore!
You can learn more about Queen Of Katwe by going to the Queen Of Katwe Website, following on Queen Of Katwe on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, as well as following the lovely #QueenOfKatweEvent bloggers all across your favorite social media networks.
How do Phiona and Katende’s words motivate you to step out in faith? I am so looking forward for you to see the movie and tell me what you learned. It is so inspirational… and you will love it. xoXOxo
PS- Group photo by Carol Jones / All Mommy Wants. “Queen Of Katwe” photos courtesy of Disney.