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‘Queen of Katwe’ celebrates the beautiful diversity of Africa

Disney’s “Queen of Katwe,” which hits theatres Friday, was shot on location in Kampala, Uganda — and the country becomes a lead character in the movie. The film is based on real-world happenings, centering around the life of chess prodigy Phiona Mutesi, who hails from Katwe, an impoverished enclave in Kampala.

At just 15 years old, she became a woman candidate master after dominating the World Chess Olympiads in 2012.

The film is based on the essay “Game of her Life,” which Tim Crothers penned for ESPN The Magazine in 2011. The story, and later a biographical novel, provided an honest look into Mutesi’s path to greatness, including the hurdles she leaped over to get there.

Directed by Mira Nair (“Mississippi Masala” and “Salaam Bombay!”), the film stars Uganda-born newcomer Madina Nalwanga as Mutesi; Kenya-reared Lupita Nyong’o as Mutesi’s mother, Nakku Harriet; and Nigerian David Oyelowo in the role of Robert Katende, a missionary and refugee of Uganda’s civil war who started a chess program in Katwe. The film was intentionally cast with actors who have a direct connection to Africa, which brings an organic authenticity to the film.

The thought being: If the story and people are real, the film’s visuals should be as well.

Part of laminating that sense of truth was creating the right imagery, and that’s where Nigeria-born Mobolaji Dawodu comes in. As a fashion editor and the film’s costume designer, he curated the wardrobe and created a storyline with clothing.

“My dad is Nigerian, and my first few years of life took place in Nigeria. I’m very familiar with the continent. It was like going home for me,” noted Dawodu, who drew inspiration for the film from “everything I saw growing up.”

Once in Uganda, Dawodu scoured the retail outlets of Kampala for items that would work with his vision for the film. “The first stop was the markets,” he said. “I wanted to see what the people were wearing and how they interacted.

“Typically, there’s this sense of distance in African films, mainly because people see Africa as this one [monolithic] country rather than the very diverse continent it is. Each country is different, and especially in respect to wardrobe and how they dress. For instance, Nigerians dress much different than South Africans.”

Dawodu visited the real-life home of Mutesi’s mom and thumbed through her closet to draw inspiration for Nyong’o’s wardrobe.

“I wanted to really study and bring her personality to the screen,” he said.

Owino Market, which is Kampala’s largest (though there are several) and hosts about 500,000 traders, features stalls that sell everything from secondhand clothing and shoes to food and household appliances. But it’s most renowned for its wide variety of vintage wears.

So, of course, Dawodu wanted this very central part of life in Uganda incorporated in the film.

“You know those bins you see [referring to clothing donation bins], many of the items end up in open markets. So [in Kampala], they have clothes from all over the world,” Dawodu said. “They have an Indian section, a kids’ section, hat section, dress coat section, jean section — it’s like a huge department store in there.”

Though many of the printed pieces were custom-made for the film, Dawodu was sure to integrate his finds from the open market into the film. “I worked with many of the local designers. I wanted to shop where the locals shopped,” he said.

Kanga cloth, a colorful piece of fabric which is typically used as a wrap, and the traditional Ugandan floor-length (often printed) dress called a Busuuti (alternatively named Gomesi) were infused into the film’s wardrobe as well. “The landscape of Africa is colorful and vibrant, so I wanted to bring that to the project. I wanted to load the world with color,” Dawodu said.

The movie highlights the complexities of Africa in a raw and lovely manner — a job well-done for the creative team, including Dawodu.

This story is featured on espnW.com