The Contenders

Lupita Nyong’o is always on the queenside

The Oscar winner turns in another prizeworthy performance and puts the spotlight on African women

Somewhere, a deep chocolate dark-skinned girl is thinking that in spite of impossible odds — whether that be her environmental circumstances, her hue or simply being female — she can win. And when this girl faces challenges before she ultimately becomes triumphant, there’s glory in that as well, because in order to appreciate victory, one needs to know defeat. And when that young woman arrives at her big achievement(s), and sits down and really thinks about it, she might realize that Lupita Nyong’o is due a wee bit of gratitude.

Maybe more than a bit.

This week, Queen of Katwe opens in theaters. The film, starring Nyong’o and directed by Mira Nair (Mississippi Masala, Monsoon Wedding and Salaam Bombay!), centers on young Phiona Mutesi, a real-life chess prodigy from the slums of Katwe, Uganda, who ultimately becomes a Woman Candidate Master after she rocks it out at the World Chess Olympiads.

The story, at its core, is about competitive spirit and the willingness to fight even when — especially when — your king is in jeopardy. It’s an important story, and there’s good money that if Oscar winner, fashion muse and Broadway star Nyong’o wasn’t involved in the project, we likely would not have seen this sort of media blitz going on right now. It’s an amazing movie. Critics marveled at the Toronto Film Festival earlier this month. It’s also rare. The images seen of people from the African continent are so often homogenous or horrific — rarely three-dimensional and authentic to country, tribe, crew or neighborhood.

Now, Queen of Katwe is not void of seemingly impossible circumstances — it’s a story about a family of impoverished Ugandan corn sellers. Their daughter, Phiona Mutesi, 12, is illiterate, lost her father to AIDS and is on her way to becoming one of the greatest chess players of all time. Nyong’o plays Mutesi’s mother, Harriet, and it’s yet another role in which she puts the focus on an African — in this case Ugandan — woman.

In Queen of Katwe, what sets the story in motion is a soccer coach (David Oyelowo) who learns he can’t teach the neighborhood children how to play — their impoverished families fear that if they injure themselves, they won’t be able to afford medical attention. He pivots and decides to teach them another sport of sort — the game of chess, which like so many sports is about overcoming adversity and pushing past challenges.

“The biggest challenge for me has been self-doubt,” Nyong’o said about her life and career. “The feeling that you’re not worthy, you’re not good enough … that all of us go through. You have to learn to distinguish between what is … the voice of fear, and what is the truth. There’s always an element of fear because the thing about acting is that it’s never the same. You’re never really an expert. And as soon as you are, that movie is over and you have to start again. I have to constantly deal with that. But then … once you have control of your mind, and you have the confidence, the courage to face your fears, it’s so much easier to deal with the external.”

She said that young Phiona in Queen of Katwe goes through that. “She has to learn, No, it’s a loss in a moment and it does not reflect on what your worth is in the world. You have to value yourself more than losing or winning.”

She said that about 10 pages into the script, she was weeping. “Because it was such an exciting project. So full of hope and light,” said Nyong’o, who was born in Mexico to Kenyan parents and reared in Kenya. “The fact it’s based on this true story … it was from … Uganda … all those things were just gems for me. I hadn’t seen anything like that come across my desk until that point.”


Brent Lewis/The Undefeated

It was just three years ago, when ingenue Nyong’o made her first immaculate red carpet run. Since then, she’s become a style muse for some of the biggest brands in the world — Tiffany and Lancôme among them. Not only was a chocolate-brown woman crowned Hollywood’s new it woman, but she was undeniably black. This never happens in Hollywood. Not to us. Not for us. Not ever.

But Nyong’o needed to be more than just a stunner. She needed to be heard. “I don’t know whether they’re listening to me in a different way,” she said on a brief stop through Washington, D.C. “But I’ve been attracted to the projects that I’ve been attracted to because … each offered me a unique opportunity, and one that did not look anything like the one before it.” She said she wants to continue in this vein. “That’s what’s so delightful about being an actor … you get to change worlds with every project. It keeps me nimble, fresh and curious, as well.”

Since winning the Oscar for best supporting actress for her role in 2013’s 12 Years a Slave, Nyong’o has played an unnamed Liberian girl in the Broadway production Eclipsed, Harriet in Queen of Katwe and soon she’ll play Nakia in the Black Panther film — all African women. “It’s so meaningful to me because … I thought when I did 12 Years a Slave, that was it! I would never have another extremely powerful and life-changing experience, and then this came along and it was just that.”

And Queen of Katwe is the first live-action thing Nyong’o has done since 12 Years a Slave. “These women have offered me something that no other women have offered me. I’m attracted to these [women] because they’re strong stories, complex women and they illuminate something about the human spirit that everyone can identify with.” She said she grew up with a lack of that kind of reflection in her life, even in terms of popular culture. “The TV screen did not offer me these women,” she said. “It makes sense that I would be attracted to them now, and I would want to bring them to life on screen. It’s important to have multiple stories about people because it makes the people the stories are being told about understand themselves better, and everyone else along with them.”

Nyong’o’s existence is necessary. She’s given a voice to a group of women who grew up being called tar babies. Women who were told their mothers cooked them in the oven too long — and burned them. Nyong’o allows those women to bask and feel beautiful alongside her. This representation is a chance to shape the lives of women who don’t often get the spotlight shone on them, something Nyong’o, who delivered an impassioned speech about learning to love her dark skin at the Essence Black Women in Hollywood luncheon in 2013, is ardent about.

“There’s nothing exotic about an African woman,” she said. “Nothing. It’s very normal. And I hope that it makes it normal for a child like me to see me and someone like me on screen. You have a point of reference outside yourself.”


Brent Lewis/The Undefeated

She said that the thing about TV and film is that it’s such a platform for understanding modern cultures. “And when you can see yourself … it creates a subconscious acceptance of one’s self because you’re interacting with everyone on screen. There’s something very elevated about having cultures on screen. It’s a validation, and it’s worthwhile for those screens to be diverse, to reflect the truth of the world we live in.”

Nyong’o’s belief in herself is mighty. Kind of like Phiona Mutesi, the unlikely, inspiring chess champion of Queen of Katwe.

“The messaging of the film is uplifting and celebratory of females achieving more than is expected from them,” she said. “Phiona is not without challenge, but she works through those challenges and she finds ways. And the very game of chess is about that — scoping the horizons and figuring out what’s going to come in your way, and how to get to where you need to get to and trying to lose as little as possible as you get there. But you will have to lose — and I love that metaphor. There are times where you do have to compromise, you do have to suffer a little, but you can still get to where you want to get to.”

Liner Notes

The Contenders is a recurring series of conversations with creatives who will be—or should be—in line for victory during the annual film awards season.

Kelley L. Carter is a senior entertainment reporter and the host of Another Act at Andscape. She can act out every episode of the U.S. version of The Office, she can and will sing the Michigan State University fight song on command and she is very much immune to Hollywood hotness.